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Getting the points of healthy poinsettias

Poinsettias, especially the red varieties, are the most popular potted plant sold during the holidays. They can also be finnicky to keep alive. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Poinsettias are the nation's most popular plant during the Christmas holidays.

The Mexican import was used by the Aztecs to make dye. In southern states, they grow to the size of bushes, or even small trees as perennials.

They are 85 percent of the plants purchased and sent during the holidays, estimated somewhere above 65 million in the U.S., with sales topping $220 million annually

They're commercially grown in every state; 90 percent of the crop is exported, according to industry figures. Most of that stock comes from the Paul Ecke Ranch in California.

Three-quarters of the poinsettias sold are red, with lesser percentages pink and yellow-white. Some retailers color the leaves more exotic colors or apply glitter to the plants.

Assembled below are some poinsettia facts, rumors and old wives' tales:

-Poinsettias are priced according to the number of blooms they have. Obviously, the more blooming leaves, called bracts, the pricier they are.

-Poinsettias' actual flowers are the little balls inside the leaves, called cyathia. They tend to fall off the plant in low light or poor humidity.

-An urban myth says the plants are poisonous. Not so. The milky sap can be a skin irritant and, if consumed in large quantities, a stomach irritant as well.

-Poinsettias are forced in greenhouses to flower during Christmas. They start blooming when their daylight hours are drastically reduced. You can force a poinsettia to bloom by placing it in total darkness up to 14 hours daily for 10 weeks. (Christmas cactus will also respond to this schedule.) If you begin this regimen in late September your plant will be blooming by Christmas.

-After poinsettias bloom, cut back their water until all the bracts fall off, then let them dry completely and store them in a 50 degree basement. Re-pot the plant in the spring and resume watering with some fertilizer.

In August you can either prune it liberally, resulting in a bushy plant with small flowers, or let it grow spindly with big flowers.

If you haven't pruned it by September, don't start.

-Poinsettias like bright indirect sunlight. Let the soil dry out between waterings. Another urban myth, which we haven't been able to debunk or confirm, says to put five ice cubes a week on the plant to water it.

-Poinsettias hate temperature extremes, drafty areas or heat.