Christmas is over, and those beautiful poinsettias are still showing lots of color.
It is possible that the actual flowers, those little yellow petals in the center of the colored bracts, have begun to drop away, but that's not why we buy them in the first place. The large red, pink and variegated leaves, which aren't the true flowers anyway, are the reason.
Yet even though we know these are usually throw-away plants, we buy them anyway. We buy them as gifts, and we buy them for ourselves to decorate our homes during the holidays. We can't help ourselves.
So now what?
Poinsettias love to live. They aren't as delicate as most people think and they don't have to be disposable. There are just a few things to note.
First, they are from southern Mexico and they are semi-tropical plants. This means we can't plant them outside and expect them to survive our winter.
But that doesn't mean we have to throw them away. They can be kept indoors until summer and then moved outside with the rest of the plants. They also can be forced to bloom again by next Christmas. It just takes a little ingenuity and heart.
As with any houseplant, the best way to keep them thriving is to give them conditions that imitate their natural habitat. With poinsettia, keep watering on a regular basis throughout the winter and give it as much bright light as possible, preferably a south-facing window. Keep the plant evenly moist, not overwatering to the point of sogginess, but don't let it dry out for too long either.
It may drop a few leaves, but unless the stems start to whither up and die back, don't worry too much about leaf drop.
By the end of February, cut the stems back to about 4 to 6 inches. This will encourage the plant to start new growth and become bushier. Around the first of May, repot the plant into a slightly larger container with fresh soil and begin feeding with a balanced fertilizer of 10-10-10 or 20-20-20.
When the night temperatures hover around 55 to 60 degrees, move the plant outdoors where it can get some bright light filtered through the trees. Don't put the poinsettia in direct sun or the leaves will burn. A shady spot with a little morning sun will work too.
Keep watering and feeding the plant regularly throughout the summer. The plant and its container can be sunk directly in the soil in the garden bed. A little pruning will keep the plant from getting spindly and will encourage more branching. More branching will mean more flowers when the time is right.
When temperatures start to drop in early fall, bring the plant back indoors and put it back in that sunny window. Keep watering it regularly, but cut back on fertilizer.
Now comes the tricky part. Poinsettia blooms are influenced by long nights and short days. That might not be a problem because our days are shorter throughout winter anyway, but even small amounts of artificial light can keep a poinsettia from blooming.
To encourage blooms, around the beginning of September cover the plant with a heavy paper bag, a black trash bag or a dark cloth from about 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. every night. The plant also can be moved to a dark closet during those hours, but remember to take it out of the closet or uncover it in the morning. It still needs those few hours of light.
Eventually, the bracts will start showing color, but don't stop the process of keeping the plant in darkness just yet. As the color on the bracts expands and the plant begins to bloom, the dark periods aren't as important any longer. This usually happens around mid-December.
Most people prefer to keep poinsettias as disposable plants, but if you don't want to spend the money on plants that will end up in the trash after Christmas, you might want to consider trying to keep the plant growing throughout the year, as well as forcing it to flower again by next Christmas.