Q.: I bought several poinsettias during the Christmas season to use as decorations. Several of my friends and family said they were poisonous and dangerous to have around my animals and small children. Is this true? Should I avoid buying them in the future? Also, I noticed that the blooms look like colored leaves. Do the leaves develop into blooms? If they are safe, how can I keep them from dying so quickly? Mine already look sick.
A.: Poinsettias can be mildly toxic, but it is a myth that they are extremely poisonous to people and animals. This myth apparently dates back to 1919 when a two-year old child erroneously was reported to have died of ingesting poinsettia leaves. Snopes, the urban legend watchdog, as well as several government agencies, health groups, veterinary groups and plant experts, agree that it is a myth that poinsettias are deadly to children and pets. Snopes says that The American Medical Association’s “Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants” indicates that ingesting poinsettia leaves may cause occasional vomiting.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Center on its website says that poinsettias are mildly toxic to animals. The American Veterinary Medicine Association of America says: “Poinsettia ingestions typically induce only mild to moderate irritation in the gastrointestinal tract of pets. Keeping the plant out of reach to avoid stomach upset is a good idea, but pet owners don’t need to banish poinsettias from their homes for fear of a fatal exposure.”
Poinsettias have been used as Christmas decorations for many years. The actually bloom is the small yellow part of the colorful area. The colorful parts of the “bloom” are actually leaves called bracts. With proper care, they will be attractive for several weeks.
When transporting them from the nursery to your home, try to keep them from becoming chilled if it is below 50 degrees. When you get them home, place them in bright light, but don’t allow the leaves to touch the cold windows. They prefer a cool place (60-70 degrees) away from drafts and heat vents.
Poinsettias prefer slightly dry soil. If they are in foil paper, check it to be sure water has not collected in it. If they sit in water for a long period, the roots will rot. Let the soil dry between waterings. After a few weeks, they will start to fade and look bad. Because, it is a lot of trouble to get the characteristic coloring, which makes the poinsettia so attractive, most people use them as annuals and replace them the next year.
If you do decide to try to get one to bloom the next year, there are several steps you need to take. Remove any dead leaves and place the plant to into bright light, preferably a south- or east-facing window. Remove the foil and place it in a saucer. Cut the stems back about half and fertilize it with half strength houseplant fertilizer in January and every four weeks until April. In April the bracts will begin to die. At this time, cut the stems back to 4 or 6 nodes.
When the weather warms, it can be placed outside either in a pot or in your garden. In the garden with proper fertilization it many grow to as large as 4 or 5 feet in width and height. Any houseplant fertilizer used at the recommended rate should work. It will need to be cut back at least twice during the summer to keep it small enough to bring back into the house in the fall.
Poinsettias are tropical plants and will die if they get too cold, so they must be mechanically manipulated in this area to induce them to bloom. To bloom, poinsettias much receive the same amount of light as they would in nature. Walter Reeves recommends covering them with a cardboard box for 14 hours a day beginning in late September. Any type of light during the 14 hours can disrupt the blooming process. Water them normally and leave them outdoors until it turns cool. Then move them indoors, continuing to cover them for 14 hours a day until early November. You should then begin to see buds appear at the ends of each branch. Then keep the plant in a cool, bright window and hopefully you will have colorful bracts in time for the holidays.
For more information on poinsettias, contact the Carroll County Office of the UGA Extension Service, 770-836-8546.