, Salem, MA

December 6, 2013

North Shore Gardener: Keeping poinsettias and cut greens vibrant

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: Poinsettias are my favorite holiday plant — but they never seem to last as long as in years before. Can you suggest some help? Through the years, I’ve heard they are quite poisonous — is that really true?

A: About the health of a poinsettia: When you buy any plant, not just poinsettias, take time to look at the leaves carefully. White flies, which congregate on the underside of the leaves, are highly contagious to your other houseplants. White flies are visitors you don’t need in your house over the holidays.

Keep the plant out of drafts — and this means special concerns when transporting a plant home or to a friend on a cold day. Warm the car before putting the plant in it — poinsettias that have been exposed to very cold temperature will turn black on the edges of the leaves.

Water the plant very well when the top layer of soil is dry to the touch, and keep the plant in strong, filtered light. It’s always a temptation to brighten up a dark corner with this cheerful plant, but please move it back to a bright window after a day or two — or put a grow-light on it — or you may lose an expensive plant.

The red poinsettias seem to live longest, but the pink and the white and peach, even striped colors are in the market and offer a pleasant change from the traditional reds.

Now on the subject of how toxic this plant is. All of the members of this plant family euphorbia, which includes crown of thorns and milk bush (sometimes called pencil tree), have a milky sap in the stem that can be irritating to the skin. If large enough amounts of petals, leaves or roots are eaten any time, they can cause swelling of the lips and throat, as well as gastric irritation, like vomiting. If you think that the plant or plant parts have been eaten, call a doctor or vet — take the patient and a piece of the plant — and get emergency care.

In addition, some of the plants are poisonous, so all houseplants should be kept away from young children and pets who might find them attractive to eat.

A great number of our houseplants are poisonous, especially when eaten. Isn’t it just common sense to keep all plants and holiday decorations that might be dangerous to our children and pets out of reach?

Q: I’m beginning to feel like Christmas. I want to use a lot of simple greens and red velvet bows this year, but the greens always seem to die too fast. We’re having a party later in the month. How soon can I decorate with my fresh greens and still expect them to look great? I want to get my money’s worth out of greens like boxwood and pine and keep them looking fresh.

A: Any cut greens will last longer if they’re soaked before you use them. Don’t have a place large enough to hold your greens to soak them? Don’t want to use the bathtub? Toss them into a plastic garbage bag, add water, and place in a cool place away from the sun. To use, drain well to save your furniture and wallpaper! It is difficult to guess the life of greens, but when they are cared for and the water is changed every few days, they’ll live a week or better.

Buy your tree early — it can be soaking up water outside your house better than on a dry lot with no care.

And if you want to help your Christmas tree last longer, recut the trunk, stand in a bucket of water and hose it down well for a few days — then drain and decorate.

Q: We’ve decided to buy a live tree and then plant it after the holidays. What can I do now, before the weather gets any worse, to get ready? I really don’t relish being out in the yard, planting a tree as the snow is falling, but my daughter thinks it’s the right thing to do. It’s that or an artificial tree. But I love the smell of a real tree, potted or cut — make it simple, please.

A: Don’t worry about buying a live Christmas tree! These trees are raised like any other crop.

(And why do they call them “live” trees anyway, when they are cut — and legally “dead”?)

But before you let anyone put a guilt trip on you for cutting a live tree, you’ve got to be able to counter-attack with these facts:

There are about a million acres of domestic Christmas trees under cultivation in the U.S. this year. How big is a million acres? That’s bigger than Norfolk, Suffolk and Middlesex counties combined!

Most farmed trees are harvested when they’re about 8 years old. Tree farmers rotate their tree crop, harvesting only 10 to 20 percent of the trees each year — and replanting immediately. This mini-forest that they are perpetually growing on their land provides shelter for hundreds of varieties of wildlife, as well as replenishing the supply of trees for coming years.

And that same cut tree can be recycled after the holidays as mulch, as a bird feeder, or as wildlife cover.

But buying a really living tree is a sensible choice.

If you are buying a live, potted tree, with the roots in a burlap ball, and intend to plant it, prepare a hole NOW before the ground freezes. Dig the hole and cover the hole with a board, a deep layer of straw, and a tarp — then you’ll be ready to plant, even in 6 feet of snow.

The mound of soil you removed from the hole will be needed when you plant to fill in around the root ball. It will also need to be kept covered and unfrozen... This soil can be put into a garbage can or plastic bags or a wheel barrow and placed in a frost-free garage or cellar.

Don’t keep a live tree in the house for more than a few days, and keep the room as cool as possible. Situate the tree away from radiators and heat ducts, sunny windows and fireplaces, and keep it well watered.

And we must mention that there are now more than 40 million artificial trees in the U.S. A happy Christmas? Bah! Humbug!

For the past few decades, I’ve circumvented the whole decision by decorating my potted 8-foot-tall Norfolk pine tree!

A thought about cutting trees: The American Forestry Association values all kinds of trees as follows: a 10-inch diameter tree, (measured 41/2 feet off the ground) is worth $729. It does makes you wonder whether we should cut down any tree, even at Christmas.

Q: I went out to go to work one sunny day last week, and spiders had taken up residence in my car. Needless to say, I borrowed my husband’s car for the day and left him with the spiders. That evening, we tried to spray them out, and I think we have succeeded, but what made them come in in such quantities this year? Will they come back again — or are they settled in for the winter — or might they appear somewhere else that’s warm and cozy for the winter? I hate to kill spiders, but I don’t like even the idea of spiders crawling down my neck as I drive down the street.

A: About the spiders in the car: There are plenty of nontoxic insect sprays — both Safer’s and Raid make them. Use the spray as directed in the car, let it stand overnight with the windows shut, then ventilate the car well before driving in the morning.

I think if you could bear it, if you waited until the cold weather, leaving the car out and open on a cold night might rid the car of the spiders without any use of insecticides. The critters are seeking a warm place for the winter, and your car is as good a place as any other (they’ve found my house, as well).

This week’s dirt

Winter officially begins next week! Think snowdrops, tulips and crocuses!


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns are at