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Question: I love the poinsettias I bought this year, but one is already starting to droop pretty badly. How do I keep them looking good through the season?

Elizabeth S., Santa Fe

Answer: Did you know you can purchase locally-grown poinsettias at plant nurseries across the state?

poinsetta1Poinsettias were already showing off their color potential at the end of October. (Photo by M. Thompson)I interviewed poinsettia growers in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Radium Springs, and Estancia to find out more about poinsettia production in New Mexico, how to get my hands on one (or a few) this season, and how to take care of them at home.

The City of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department grows its own poinsettias for holiday displays at the Albuquerque International Sunport and various City Hall buildings. I remember being struck by the vibrancy of the gorgeous Sunport poinsettia planters last December. This year, I got to visit the city’s greenhouses twice to check on the growing process. When I first visited in late August, each plant was looking puny, but promising. By the time I made it back by to check on their progress just two months later, they’d grown by leaps and bounds.

Nursery sales of seasonal and holiday plants are crucial for ensuring year-round employment in nurseries. Poinsettias, along with mums, pansies, and a few others, help maintain productivity in the fall off-season, when they would otherwise need to downsize staff considerably. With over 200 registered retail and wholesale plant nurseries in New Mexico, buying poinsettias from local businesses who acquire their plants from other local growers makes a lot of sense.

poinsetta2Figure 7. Like other plants, different cultivars are grown because they each offer slightly different qualities – think granny smith apple vs. pink lady. (Photo by M. Thompson)Not very many retail nurseries grow their own poinsettias. This is partly due to the space requirements and labor needs. Another reason is that poinsettias have picky lighting conditions that can be hard to find within city limits. It’s actually the amount of complete darkness that triggers flowering and formation of the associated bright red bracts. For the flowering process to start, ten hours of uninterrupted darkness is needed each day for 30-45 days, depending on the cultivar. Nurseries out in the country and smaller towns, like McClain’s Greenhouses in Estancia, don’t have to worry about light from their neighbors interrupting the night.

Payne’s Nurseries in Santa Fe deals with the streetlight from a neighboring gas station by hanging black plastic along one side of the greenhouse. On the other side, they have a friendly agreement with the church next door to carefully turn off parking lot lights at night starting September 15th in exchange for Christmas poinsettias. Fundraiser poinsettia sales are a popular way for groups to raise money during the holidays, including churches and garden clubs, FFA and 4-H clubs, as well as soccer and volleyball clubs.

In the southern part of the state, several nurseries work hard to keep poinsettias on the table by producing tons of plants. Sales and Distribution Manager, Mark Salgado, with Masson Farms of New Mexico in Radium Springs, reported that they’re producing 250,000 pots of poinsettias this year to be sold to retail outlets all over the state. And Sunland Nursery, just south of Las Cruces, is offering over a dozen poinsettia cultivars to wholesale customers this season.

Tips from local poinsettia growers:

  1. Got wilted leaves that drop? Overwatering is the most likely culprit. Unless that is, your plant has been underwatered. With identical symptoms, how can you tell the difference? If you have wilted leaves and adding water doesn’t perk them back up, all signs point to overwatering.
  2. Are leaves dropping without wilting first? It could be a problem with temperature (ideally 65-75°F), cold or warm drafts, and/or poor light.
  3. Drainage is key. It’s ok to display your poinsettia in the bright plastic wrap from the store, but don’t let it sit there in a puddle of water.
  4. Touch the soil surface before watering. If it’s even slightly moist, hold off a little longer… but don’t let it dry out too much either. If you are careful, you could have bright red foliage past Valentine’s Day.
  5. Remember, poinsettias are tropical plants, native to Mexico, and want to be treated that way: warm, sunny, no drafts (cold or hot).
  6. One trick to keep leggy stalks from bending over too much is to tie them midway with a single piece of crochet thread.
  7. No fertilizer needed once purchased.

For more gardening information, including decades of archived Southwest Yard & Garden columns, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page here or contact your County Extension office here.

Marisa Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist for New Mexico State University and is based at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.