Poinsettia, a popular Christmas plant in Spain. / sur

From the coin trick to a black bag: expert tips on looking after your Christmas poinsettia

These pretty plants are traditional at this time of year in Spain, and Antonio Villanueva has some helpful advice on which type to choose and how to ensure it survives

ALMUDENA NOGUÉS MALAGA.

It is traditional in Spain for households to buy a poinsettia as part of the Christmas décor, but which type is best? There is more choice every year and it can be confusing for those unaccustomed to caring for this pretty festive plant.

However, help is at hand thanks to Antonio Villanueva of Viveros Guzmán, the chain of garden centres which sells more poinsettias than anywhere else in the province, who has some expert advice on how to choose the perfect plant and look after it so it lasts.

1. Look out for broken stems

It may sound obvious, but is worth pointing out anyway. Before paying for a poinsettia, make sure it has no broken stems or dead or wilting leaves. “When you buy fresh fish you choose ones which are healthy-looking and you should do exactly the same with a poinsettia. Use your common sense,” is Villanueva’s first piece of advice.

2. The coin trick

After that initial check, take a look at how many flowers are open at the heart of the leaves, because the more there are the less time the plant will last. This is where the ‘coin trick’ comes in. “This is a bit more technical, but you need to look at the size of the group of flowers. Ideally, the circumference of the bud from which the flowers emerge (that sort of cream-coloured button) should be no smaller than a one-euro coin and no bigger than a two-euro coin,” Antonio Villanueva says. “If it is smaller it could mean the plant isn’t growing properly and if it is too big it means it has finished flowering and won’t last very long once you have got it home,” he explains.

3. Which colour is best?

Not all poinsettias are red, but do some colours last longer than others? Villanueva believes it is best to stick to the traditional varieties. “Red poinsettias are more natural, and the others, which are hybrids, may not last as long,” he advises.

4. Keep away from draughts

Poinsettias originated in Mexico and adapt to being kept indoors or outdoors. However, they do need certain conditions in order to flourish. “They need a lot of light when they are flowering and they don’t mind being in the sun in winter as long as it isn’t too strong. Indoors, if the atmosphere is dry, the leaves may drop off and they absolutely hate central heating,” Antonio says. What would be the ideal temperature? “Between 19C and 21C,” he says. Also, poinsettias need to be kept out of draughts because otherwise they dehydrate and suffer, and they don’t like being near heaters either.

5. Watering: a common mistake

Once the perfect location has been found for a poinsettia, the next question is how to water it. And that is where most people make a mistake, because these plants do not need a lot of water. “Poinsettias are more like cacti than any other plant. Some people stand them in a saucer of water and that is a great mistake because it is like being under a shower for 24 hours would be for us. In the end they go rotten,” Antonio says. So what does he recommend? What he calls the finger test. “Before watering, feel the soil. If it is damp it is best not to give it any more water,” he says.

And when it does need watering, stand it in a basin of water (distilled is best) for 15 to 20 minutes and then remove the plant and let it drain in the sink for a while.

6. What about fertiliser?

Antonio Villanueva advises using an organic liquid fertiliser when watering the plant, “because this will give it the necessary nutrients without burning the roots,” he says. Once every ten days is enough.

7. Can a plant last for more than one year?

This is a complicated question to answer. Yes, says Antonio, but it is not easy. If you want to try, once the leaves have dropped prune the plant, leaving just 6 cms of stem, then put it into a bigger pot and water it without fertiliser until new leaves appear. That is when it can be fertilised, and in order for the leaves to turn red it is best to keep the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours a day during September, October and November, covered with a black bag.