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Paradise for Poinsettias
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

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December 2, 2007

I've been to a country where heat rather than cold is the complaint. A place where people talk about the humidity as if it is a problem to be dealt with instead of a pleasure to enjoy. A place where I saw a 5 metre tall poinsettia in full bloom along the banks of the Mekong river .

The vision of this and many other tropical plants from around the globe struck me as strange at first. What was a Mexican plant (the poinsettia) doing in an otherwise untamed tropical forest in Asia? Why were the balconies of Bangkok trailing with Brazilian bougainvillea or the streets lined with the dramatic Travellers tree from Madagascar? As I was wondering aloud about the curiosity of interesting plants being transported around the world I realised this particular riverside poinsettia was serving a practical function. Without a neon sign in sight the message that gas and supplies was available at this small Poinsettia decorated dock was clearly and boldly announced to all river travellers.

Although North Americans have also made use of the tropical poinsettia, turning it into a symbol of the season - their great abundance as ornamentals throughout Asia and, I imagine, throughout tropical zones around the globe surprised me and reminded me that these plants are tropical and need to be treated that way. They grow to tree size in full sun , full heat and extremely high humidity. I suddenly knew what I had been doing wrong with my previous poinsettias at home and realised a few tips from the bush could help all gardeners recognise our chilly ways and give our seasonal tropical plants a chance for success in our homes this season.

Imagine a bathroom where the hot water supply is endless and the tap is left on for hours. Simulate these conditions , turn up the heat , add a south facing window and - instantly - the conditions will be perfect for poinsettias and another seasonal favourite here, the Christmas cactus. While it is not practical to keep humidity levels this high throughout the home, humidity of some quantity may be most plentiful in a Christmas kitchen with kettles boiling, dishwasher running and potatoes bubbling over. As long as there is some humidity in the room, and up to excellent light, poinsettias will thrive. A major mistake is to compromise heat for light. Trying to maximise light by placing the poinsettia in a bright but cool window may be too chilly a compromise. Even with double glazing a Calgary windowsill is a cold zone and not the first place I would put a tropical and it is possible to keep poinsettias alive- if not in prime shape- in a location with less than perfect light .

Imagine heavy rains that never stay on the ground but run right through the soil and down-stream to the next channel and connecting rivulet and river. While moisture is obviously in the air and in the ground it is never puddling or sitting at the base of the plants growing in pots or on high ground in the tropics. While poinsettias and Christmas cactus are never sitting in water, the soil is never completely dried out either. Poinsettias have especially fragile water and salt sensitive roots with a preference for moist, never completely dry or soggy soil. Pots sitting in water - or even in a decorative pot sleeve that holds water - could result in the death of fine roots. Tropicals appreciate soft, room temperature rain water or snow melt free of chlorine, fluorine and other chemicals; leaving the water to sit overnight wherever it is warm enough to rise a loaf of bread is a good alternative to using icy river water right out of the tap because the gases will escape and the mountain water will have a chance to warm slightly.

Finally, imagine the sole source of nutrients provided to your tropical plant coming from rotting leaf mould and natural organic decay from duff on the soil surface. If the urge to fertilise your Christmas plant strikes you mid-month and there is no well rotted organic source of nutrient nearby, choose a very mild fertiliser solution or dilute any fertiliser you have on hand to less than half strength before adding it to the prewarmed water. When watering or fertilising gently pour the solution gently over the plant roots while holding the plant above the sink or above a bucket where excess moisture is quickly allowed to escape.

While moving to a full time life in a tropical setting isn¹t going to be realistic for most poinsettia growers this season, simulating the plant¹s environment and providing a gentler, warmer, moister site - at least for a short while- is the goal. Choosing the warmest afternoon to move the plant home from its temporary shelter in the humid greenhouse will ease the transition for tropicals and will also be a bonus for keeping the plant we¹ve grown to associate with the miracle of Christmas alive and thriving.

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