Did you know that in 2002, Congress designated Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day? While it is not a national holiday, its purpose is to encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty of this national treasure.
This recognition as the standard holiday plant is because of the impressive marketing efforts of Paul Ecke Jr. He introduced the poinsettia with brilliant product placement strategies. Night owls who stayed up late in the 1960s may remember the hundreds of poinsettias decorating the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Ecke also encouraged magazines including Women's Day and Sunset to use poinsettias on their holiday covers and in decorating photos.
Today, when someone wants a pretty flowering plant for a holiday centerpiece, a red poinsettia is usually the plant of choice. Making up about 75 percent of the poinsettias sold each year in the U.S., red poinsettias are unlikely to lose their No. 1 spot. White and pink poinsettias come in a distant second and third.
There also are other colors available, including salmon, apricot, plum, burgundy, dark red, creamy white, and speckled, marbled or variegated novelty varieties (cultivars).
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Interestingly, when consumers were asked to rank the newest poinsettia cultivars in trials run by North Carolina State University, their top pick was Ice Punch. Ice Punch is a novelty cultivar with red edged petals (actually bracts) with white centers. The consumers' top five choices did not include the plain red poinsettias in the trials.
I wonder if the main reason that three-quarters of us buy red poinsettias is because it is the only color available in many retail stores, or maybe it is just tradition. NCSU researchers also found that when they asked consumers to rank different red cultivars, they selected bright red over the darker that have been the mainstay of the poinsettia market for more than 20 years.
If you are decorating with poinsettias, here are some helpful tidbits:
The true poinsettia flower is at the center of the colorful bracts. The freshest poinsettias will have green or red-tipped flowers. Those with flowers that shed their pollen will not last as long. Avoid plants with yellow leaves or those that are dropping leaves.
The poinsettia is a sub-tropical plant native to Mexico and does not tolerate freezing temperatures. If the temperature is below freezing when you take a poinsettia home, wrap it with paper and transport it in a warm vehicle. At home, keep it out of cold and warm drafts. It will last the longest when kept at 60 to 70 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night.
The potting mix should be kept slightly moist. Water when the mix feels dry, and immediately discard any excess water. To keep the plant as long as possible, do not let the mix dry out or let the pot sit in water.
While poinsettias are not considered toxic, they can cause vomiting and diarrhea if eaten. Plus, their milky white sap can be irritating to the skin and mouth. Keep leaves, stems and flowers away from children and pets.
-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.