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Garden Plot: Tropical plants make a Mid-Atlantic winter bright

Friday - 12/6/2013, 11:24am  ET

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Potted poinsettias are ready to be picked up, Monday Dec. 2, 2013, in Brownsville, Texas. (AP Photo/The Brownsville Herald, Brad Doherty)

Poinsettia season has arrived

Mike McGrath, Garden Plot

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Stalking the wild poinsettia

One of my fellow WTOP staffers, "Big" Jim Battagliese, just told me a great story. He explained that he bought a basic supermarket poinsettia a couple of years ago and kept it alive after the holidays. He puts it outside in the summer and brings it back into the house in the winter, and reports that it's now a 3-foot-tall shrub, but that it's lost that classic poinsettia shape and doesn't have the desired red flowers up top.

Well, I am happy to tell Jim that he's now seeing what these tropical plants really look like, as opposed to the heavily pruned ones that are sold for the holidays. In their native Mexico, poinsettias can grow to 10 feet!

Congratulations, Jim. You have cultivated "A Real Poinsettia of D.C." Can a reality show be far behind?

Now, it's not any flowers that are missing that holiday crimson color. The actual flowers on a poinsettia are those little yellow things in the center of the plant. The red coloring we love to see at Christmas occurs on the uppermost bracts (or leaves) of the plant, but only when the tropical poinsettia is exposed to tropical light conditions, specifically 12 hours of bright light and 12 hours of darkness every day.

It takes about three months of this equal time to get a plant to color up, but it should work on any poinsettia. If Jim gets himself a big black cloth and gives his plant the night and day treatment beginning early next September, he could end up with the biggest Christmas poinsettia on the block in 2014.

Keep your poinsettias warm!

A blast of colder air is expected to cross over our region Friday and Saturday, so be sure and protect your poinsettias. Although solidly connected to Christmas by a clever California grower in the 1920s -- Paul Ecke, whose family still produces the holiday plants -- the poinsettia is native to Mexico and is very frost tender.

You can leave your live Christmas trees and cute little rosemary trees outside, they're very hardy, but poinsettias are strictly indoor plants in winter. Keep them away from drafts and heat sources, and water them whenever the pot feels light. But be sure to water correctly: take the decorative foil wrapper off the pot, sit the pot in a sink with some water in it for a half hour or so, let it drain, and then replace the foil. Don't let the foil fill up with water or it'll rot the roots of the plant.

Oh and don't handle poinsettias personally if you're allergic to latex. The plants contain natural latex and can cause a really rashy reaction. But do treat your plant with a little extra respect this coming Thursday: National Poinsettia Day!

Holiday plant rules:

  • Always cut an extra inch or two off the base of a cut tree and stand it in a big container of water for a few hours to fully hydrate the tree before you put it in the stand. Don't let that water holder dry out for even a day, or green the color of your carpet will be!
  • Never expose poinsettias to cold weather. They should always leave the store wrapped, get into a warm car and then into a warm home ASAP. Don't let them sit in a car while you go shopping if the weather is below 45 degrees.
  • It's important for men to bring some sprigs of cut holly into the house at this time of year. What's that? Why is it important? Well, you know, it's decorative and traditional, green leaves, red berries…
  • Why is it important for men to do this decorating? Eh…to…to… to protect women's delicate hands from the sharp edges of the leaves! Yeah, that it's! And not because of the ancient lore that says a man who brings holly into the home in the weeks before Christmas will rule the roost and be "King of His Castle" in the coming year. No, that's just -- what do they call it? -- a coincidence. Yeah, that's it….

Christmas road trips, near and far

Speaking of poinsettias, did you know that the very first poinsettia displayed in the United States appeared at the very first edition of the Philadelphia Flower Show back in 1829? As a Philly row home kid (Torresdale/Mayfair section for those who know their neighborhoods), I'm always proud of the fact that The Philadelphia Flower Show is the, well, everything. It's the oldest continuous flower show in America and the biggest indoor flower show in the world.

If you're stumped for a gardener's gift, buy them a membership to the organization that presents the show each year: the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Membership includes tickets to the show in March plus lot of special perks, like member only admission times and free use of the member's lounge during the show -- often for the same price as those tickets alone would cost you! You can find more details here.

Or for the ultimate gardener's getaway, arrange to have that special plant-tender join me on a botanical trip I'll be leading to Cuba this coming Jan. 14 to 22. We're really going for the tropical horticulture and not just the 80 to 85 degree daytime temps in January. Or because it's a place that's otherwise very difficult to legally visit. Honest! Find more details about the trip here.

Hey, maybe we'll see some big wild poinsettias there!

Ladybug, ladybug, get out of my home!

Mike in Arlington writes: "Our daughter's house is infested with ladybugs. They come in the winter and are difficult to get rid of. What can we do?"

First, be happy that they're not the stink bugs that are invading most people's homes at this time of year. Those stinkers are pests indoors and out! Although the multicolored Asian ladybugs in your daughter's home are pestiferous when they come into homes to hibernate, they're highly beneficial pest-eaters outdoors in the garden when the weather is warm.

So the best answer is to suck them up into a canister vacuum containing a clean bag half-filled with shredded, slightly dampened newspaper, straw or raffia. Then thoroughly mist them by spritzing clean water into the bag, seal it shut, store in the fridge and release them outdoors to eat pests in the spring. (They were going to hibernate anyway.)

Otherwise, just suck them up with a vacuum and put them out with the trash. But be sure to toss that bag promptly, or the vacuum will start to stink when your unwanted houseguests pass into the Ladybug afterlife.

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