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Confessions of a Poinsettia Killer

By Cynthia Bombach

Ah, the lovely poinsettia! What could be easier than bringing one of these potted beauties home to brighten the house during the holidays?                                                

Just about everything, as it turns out.

Some years I manage to nurse one along until spring, and others… Well, let’s just say it’s a good thing there’s no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Houseplants.

Last year my friend gave me a robust red poinsettia a week before Christmas. I brought it home along with a list of printed instructions. The list reminded me of something a new mother would give to her first babysitter:

Don’t let the baby get too wet.

Don’t let it dry out, either!

Keep the poor dear away from drafts, even warm ones.

When you take the little darling outside, for goodness’ sake keep it covered!

After a recent string of successful poinsettia-care years, I felt pretty confident that all that coddling wasn’t necessary. So I tossed the instructions in the recycling bin and put the plant on a table beside the staircase in my living room. It looked perfect.

The next day I checked the soil in the poinsettia’s pot. It was starting to dry out but was still damp. So far, so good.

Two days later I noticed the bottom leaves were beginning to curl up. Uh-oh. I stuck my finger in the soil. It had the texture of dehydrated scouring pad. I gave the plant a good soaking and crossed my fingers.

Despite my rescue efforts, the leaf-curling continued. By the fourth day the entire plant was drooping. I hoped it would revive itself in time for Christmas. But on the morning of the fifth day, my once-lovely plant was nothing but a red blob on top of a green blob.

I dug the instructions out of the recycle bin to find out where I went wrong.

Did I cover the plant during its trip to my house? Oops. Did I keep it not too dry, not too wet? Umm…not exactly. Did I keep it out of drafts, even warm ones? I suspect its location next to an open stairwell may have led to a draft or two. Will I try to make it bloom again next year? Ha! I crumpled the instructions and tossed them back in the bin.

It’s not as if I’m totally inept at growing poinsettias. One year I managed to keep one thriving until summer. I planted it outdoors and watched it triple in size. In the fall I cut it back, repotted it and gave it lots of properly scheduled darkness. By Christmas it rewarded me with three tiny red bracts on top of a big green plant. So I did have one semi-successful season of being a good poinsettia parent.

But last year my green and red blob didn’t even make it to Christmas. I was so ashamed that I hid the plant in a back room where no one would see it. Then, under cover of darkness, I quietly disposed of the remains in the trash.

Despite my failure, I still love the look of poinsettias and fantasize about filling my house with them for the holidays. And this year I plan to do just that. Thanks to a secret I’ve learned, I’m confident they’ll last well beyond Christmas. I’ll even print copies of the new instructions for anyone who asks.

“Pay special attention to rule number five,” I’ll say as I hand over the paper.

Whatever you do, DON’T touch the plants!

That’s the most important rule. It’s the one that will keep people from finding out my new poinsettias are made of silk.

 — Cynthia Bombach

Cynthia Bombach is an author, essayist and humorist from the hills of western Pennsylvania. Her essays, both humorous and reflective, have been published in diverse outlets including the Loyalhanna Review, GreenPrints, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, EQUUS and Atlanta Parent. Her most recent book, The Complete Homestead Planner, attests that she does in fact have a practical side. She’s the proud plant parent of two Christmas cacti, which bloom reliably every year no matter what she does (or doesn’t do) to care for them.

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