My father was color blind. He could not tell the difference between red and green. This is a pretty serious affliction for a guy who is into orchids and other flowers, but I guess he never knew the difference so it wasn't that bad. He had a big and colorful collection and he even had some plants with red flowers, though he thought they were gray.
His color blindness was a problem, however, when it came to poinsettias. And yes, this is the annual poinsettia column, as it is still the most popular potted plant sold in the world. This, itself is hard to believe if only because one family literally had a monopoly on its production, world-wide, until the 1990s when their secret (grafting two plants while young to get the familiar, bushy plants) was discovered independently by a professor who decided to publish his findings. Don't worry, the Eckes family still has about 65 percent of the US sales and 50 percent of the rest of the world.
Anyhow, my dad did not like poinsettias -- and who can blame him? The tiny yellow flower isn't much to write home about and, without the red leaf bracts, I am quite sure I would not be writing about this plant once a year. Which reminds me, if given a choice when buying a poinsettia, choose the plants where the yellow flowers have not opened yet. They will last longer, if you care for them properly, that is.
Sometimes I could see Dad eying a poinsettias when we went to friends and relatives. He used to use them to teach me about caring for houseplants. "See these foil pot decorations?" he'd ask. "They don't let the water drain out and that is why these plants are all losing leaves." He would explain how plant roots need oxygen and that it was tough to do when you were underwater.
Of course he was right about poinsettias. They like slightly moist soil, not wet soil and not underwater soil. Sellers don't use foil around pots anymore; now it is plastic of some sort. Poke holes in it if you want to keep it around a poinsettia.
Dad once had me stand by a plant and see what happened when a new guest arrived. It got cold. "Drafts are not good for these plants," he would point out. Drafts, especially the cold kind we get here in Alaska, are a big no-no when it comes to poinsettias keeping their leaves. While Alaska grown poinsettias are the best in the world and poinsettias have come a long way in keeping leaves despite abuse, they don't like drafts. They drop leaves like a Christmas tree sheds needles in mid-January.
Drafts include that walk to the car after you purchase your plants. Warm it up first. Get your plants wrapped up. And take them out of the car first when you arrive home. In this weather, the milk can wait to get to the fridge.
And, my Dad was famous for moving plants around other people's houses. "Poinsettias like it cool," he would tell some hostess or another as he took her plant into a cooler room. At least she got to keep her plants. Many a time over the years I would cringe when I was with my Dad and saw a sickly poinsettia. It didn't matter where he was, it could have been the White House, he would pick these up and unceremoniously dump them in a trash basket. That was really embarrassing!
I was always appalled at this move. I am sure in his mind, he was doing the owner a favor. Me? Well, I am not that fond of poinsettias either, for my own reasons. But these are holiday plants and there appearance reflects on the owner, you. So, while it is the beginning of the season, take care of your poinsettias from the get-go. No drafts, keep them slightly moist, put them in a cool 60 degree room when not on display and you won't have to worry about me coming over and tossing them before the end of the holidays.
Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.