Forcing Poinsettias —by Jinny Batterson
About ten months ago, a neighbor bequeathed to me three post-season poinsettias, two red and one pink. She said she was not good with plants. She thought I might be able to nurse them through the rest of the cold weather while enjoying their still-vibrant colors. Our condo has a set of sunny front windows; they became the plants’ late winter home. Once spring’s last frost had passed, all three plants went into the ground out front. The two previously red ones thrived, the pink one fell prey to a combination of poor soil and digging by our ever-busy squirrels.
As summer progressed, the plants’ remaining red leaves fell off. By August, we had two shrub-sized green plants preening happily among the other annuals and perennials. Though September’s temperatures stayed hot, it seemed a good idea as the days shortened toward autumn to transfer the poinsettias into indoor pots before cold weather and even shorter days. I trimmed back the most luxuriant growth, put some slow-release fertilizer into the pots along with the semi-shorn poinsettias, and crossed my fingers that the plants would survive yet another change of home. I’d created tall and narrow specimens, rather than the short and wide versions seen in holiday-prepped store poinsettias, but our plants did not die.
OK, I thought, how about the next step? Can I get them to repeat the brilliant reds of the previous year? According to an internet subpage for Lowe’s home improvement (https://www.lowes.com › buying-guide › selecting-caring-poinsettia), for Christmas-blooming poinsettias, you need to start in early October and continue for at least 40 days, providing between 13 and 16 hours of complete darkness each 24 hours, alternating with remaining hours in light.
Our regimen of under-lawn-bags-in-the-basement darkness did not start until mid-October, and at first nothing happened. The only change seemed to be the added daily chore of bringing the plants up into the light after breakfast, and shrouding them back in basement darkness after supper. One or two days we forgot. Would this invalidate the overall effort? I wondered.
In early November, the first hints of redness began to appear in some tiny shoots at the tops of the plants. Now, as Thanksgiving approaches, we have a few small red leaves, a few others where the summer’s green seems to be fading, revealing redness underneath, a little like deciduous trees aflame in the fall. I doubt the eventual effect will be as striking as that of a greenhouse-forced glory from a local garden store.
Still, the experiment has been worth the effort for me. Whatever its other outcomes, it has reinforced my knowledge that many living things, including humans, respond to changes in intervals of light and dark. Somewhat less sunny moods during the months of short days can be natural; to partially counter the winter blahs, it’s important to get outdoors into natural light, even in cold weather. Best of all, I’ve relearned that beauty comes in all sizes and shapes—tall and narrow and short and wide. Perhaps the poinsettias are forcing me.