Air Date: Week of December 31, 1999
Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth Gardening Expert Michael Weishan about long-term care of all those poinsettias you got over the holidays.
CURWOOD: Well, it's January now, and households around the country are still recovering from the holiday season. New toys, hopefully not too many of them broken all over the place, and plenty of Christmas plants to water. Living on Earth's traditional gardener Michael Weishan is going to help us with those plants. Hi, Michael.
WEISHAN: Hey, Steve, how are you?
CURWOOD: Tell me, did you give a lot of plants this year?
WEISHAN: No one appreciates plants from me because they think it's too easy. It's like, what did he give you this year? A plant. Oh, that was a real tough gift. So I don't give any plants at all.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Now, what's the most popular Christmas plant?
WEISHAN: Well, by far the most popular Christmas plant and ones that are now sitting in the millions around the United States are poinsettias. They are the most popular potted plant in the United States bar none, Christmas or otherwise.
CURWOOD: Of course every at my house there seems to be a lot of poinsettias. I never really thought about it. I figured we get them because they're red and green, the Christmas colors. But is there more of a story to poinsettias than that?
WEISHAN: The plant had tremendous religious significance to the Aztecs. They left it in place wherever it was growing, and thought it was a gift from the gods because of its beauty. When the Spanish arrived to South America and to Central America, they saw this plant and they associated the red color with the blood of Christ. And so, it became associated with Christmas because it turns red about this time of year. It didn't become popular in this country until a man named Joel Poinsette [phonetic spelling], who was a Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren and sort of a roving ambassador down in Central America. He stirred up a tremendous amount of trouble down in that part of the world. Fomented political rebellion and actually had to flee for his life, appropriately enough, on Christmas day (Curwood laughs). But before he did that, he sent back to his home town, Charleston, some of the first samples of this plant. And actually, subsequently, became very wealthy, breeding them. There's a movement afoot to try to get it renamed away from poinsettia, because it's not very PC down in the Spanish-speaking countries. As a matter of fact there's a word, pointsentissimo, which means meddling in other people's affairs (Curwood laughs) without being warranted. So it's not a very good history, and they certainly don't want to call it a poinsettia by any means of the imagination.
CURWOOD: Is it true that these poinsettias are highly toxic? That you shouldn't let your pets anywhere near them?
WEISHAN: According to the research I've done, that's not true. They definitely will give you an upset stomach, however, but they won't kill you.
CURWOOD: Of course, the poinsettia isn't the only plant that gets given at the holiday season. What are some of your other favorites?
WEISHAN: I personally am a big fan of Christmas cactuses. They come in a tremendous variety of colors these days. They've been doing a remarkable amount of breeding. This one still has a few blooms left on it, And you can see it's --
CURWOOD: Ooh, look at that. They're a beautiful pink.
WEISHAN: Yeah, huge flowers. Almost like orchids. Not a lot of scent but just absolutely beautiful. And it's been blooming like that since November.
CURWOOD: Now help me with the Christmas cactus for a moment. I have one of these things, and you know, it puts out beautiful flowers but darn it, I never get them to come out at Christmas.
WEISHAN: The problem is that most plants that bloom at this time of year, the bloom is triggered by the shortening days. And so, if they are in a house where there is a lot of extra light, or if they're in an office space or somewhere where there's a lot of artificial lighting, they're not going to sequence the bloom correctly. The days will be too long, the days will be short. If you turn on the lights the days are long and if you don't they're short. The plant gets confused in other words. Here in the greenhouse where it's just totally natural light, they come into bloom all by themselves without any help. But in a household environment, what you want to do is put them down in a dark place or cover them, and the poinsettia the same way, for about 14 hours or so, a day, nighttime included, so that you'll have a very long period of darkness for the plant. And then they'll come into bloom automatically, at the right time.
CURWOOD: So what other plants are people likely to get at the holiday season?
WEISHAN: Gardenias are another great favorite, and they're certainly one of my favorites. Certainly for the fragrance. Actually, I have a gardenia right here I can show you. Let me pull this one over.
WEISHAN: This is a problem with gardenias. They need to be kept constantly moist. But if you keep them overly moist like this one, you can rot the whole bottom off. So this and azaleas are (laughs) it's not a place to start, let's put it this way, if you're interested in keeping over your plants from one year to the next. This is an advanced subject in plant care.
CURWOOD: Well, thanks for the help, Michael.
WEISHAN: My pleasure, Steve. Here, I'll even snap off this little glass gardenia blossom for you for your lapel there. You can take it back with you.
CURWOOD: Mmm, thank you. (Inhales) Just beautiful.
WEISHAN: The last of the season.
CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener and is publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. Find out more about gardening and any gardening questions you have. You can send to Michael via our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. When you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.
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