Poinsettia colors and all those other Christmas things


Poinsettias and snow-on-the-mountain, otherwise known as white poinsettia, are in full bloom.

Although it feels like fall — and we’ve been seeing Christmas decorations in some stores since Halloween — the holidays don’t seem real until after Thanksgiving. This year is particularly confusing since Thanksgiving came late and we really haven’t had our first chilling weather yet.

At 3,000 feet elevation in Kaloko Mauka, we haven’t even had a fire in the fireplace — usually, we light one in early November.

Luckily, poinsettias remind us the season is upon us. Seeing the colorful displays of red and white this year made me wonder why these colors, as well as green, blue, gold and silver are associated with Christmas.

Most colors are derived from a Northern European heritage but may have come from early Egyptian, Greek and Roman roots. Evergreen plants, such as holly, mistletoe and ivy were used to brighten up short, dreary days. Ancient Egyptians used green palm leaves during winter festivals.

Red is said to represent the blood of Jesus. Red was also the color of bishops’ robes. St. Nicholas would have worn one. Thus, Santa Claus and his red suit evolved.

Gold represents the sun which was worshipped by early pagans long before Jesus. White is associated with purity and peace in many earlier cultures. Blue and purple are associated with the robes of Mary. Since blue and purple were very expensive colors to produce in ancient times, they were often revered and worn only by royal families.

Although mainland folks think of poinsettia — a New World plant, part of Christmas celebrations only after 1500 — as a Christmas flower, it normally blooms November through March in Hawaii.

Purchasing potted stock from a garden center or nursery is the easiest way to establish plantings of the holiday ornamental. However, some green thumb operators scavenge the neighborhood for hardwood cuttings when fellow gardeners prune their poinsettias following the flowering season. Be careful to select cuttings from healthy, vigorous plants.

Poinsettias come in red, white and pink varieties and will grow on a wide range of soils, including sand, rocky and well-drained clay. In spite of the wide adaptability, the plants will present a better show of color if you take proper care of them. They will not tolerate soggy soil or heavy shade.

An application of fertilizer in August should now be producing large colorful bracts. The plants will need repeat applications of plant food in early spring, again in June and perhaps during midsummer if there are heavy rains.

For best results, prune poinsettias back to within 12 to 18 inches of the ground in late winter or early spring, after blooming is over. A compact plant will furnish more color than a plant with a few leggy stalks. To promote a riot of colored bracts, prune the plants several times during the growing season. Nip the new growth back after it is 12 inches long, leaving four leaves on each shoot. Be sure to stop the pruning in early September, because the flowering buds are set in early October.

Poinsettias show their color according to the day length and temperature. A plant near a lighted window or a street light often refuses to color up like a neighboring plant in a darker corner. Dreary skies in September and early October will shorten the days causing plants to set buds and flower before the holiday season.

Temperature is a limiting factor for a good show of flowers. If nighttime temperatures are much above 70 degrees, bud forming will be retarded. Freak periods of hot weather during this time may not permit buds to form at all. The best flower development is when the night temperatures range from 60 to 68 degrees.

For plants in your garden, one problem to watch for now is mites. Drier conditions are ideal for this pest. Spraying with a miticide will take care of the little stinkers. Sprinkling the leaves daily with the garden hose is also helpful. This will minimize whitefly attacks as well. The best time to water is early morning. That way you avoid sunburn and fungal diseases.

Poinsettias can be used as cut flowers if the stems are treated to coagulate the milky sap and reduce wilting. As soon as the flowers are cut, immerse the cut ends in hot water for about a minute. Then place them in cold water. Be sure the steam does not damage the bracts.

An alternate method of halting the oozing sap is to singe the cut ends of the stem over a flame for a couple of seconds and then place the stems in cold water. For best results and longer lasting beauty, cut the poinsettias about 18 hours before they are to be used in an arrangement. Store the cut “flowers” or bracts in a cool, draft-free place.

If you want to experiment with this year’s potted plant, don’t toss it out when the last leaf drops.

The plant will show brilliant color next Christmas season if you follow these tips. For wet sites on the island, store the pot, plant and all, in an out-of-the-way place. This treatment is intended to cause the plant to go dormant during the cool days while the shriveling top feeds the sleeping roots.

Only water the plant to keep it from getting bone dry. Avoid giving it fertilizer. Try storing the sleeping plant in the shady corner of the carport.

Toward the end of February, awaken the plant by cutting off its dead top. You can grow the new plant in last season’s pot, but it will be happier if you set it in the ground where it can flex its roots. Plant it where it will get lots of sun and be sure it is away from street lights or other sources of light that would hinder the blooming cycle.