Plants that light up our holiday traditions


By Roberta Tolan

SUN Columnist

Whether it is a family outing to cut the perfect tree, decorating it with heirloom ornaments or enjoying the beauty of its lights, the Christmas tree is the center of many holiday traditions.

Christmas trees can be purchased from tree lots  or cut fresh from the national forest with a permit.

The following research-based guidelines, provided by Rick Bates, Department of Horticulture at Penn State University, will help you to maintain the freshness and aroma of your live Christmas tree this holiday  season.

• Use a tree stand with an adequate water-holding capacity. A tree stand should have a water basin that provides 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. For most Christmas trees, the stand should hold at least 1 gallon of water.  A cut tree will absorb a surprising amount of water, particularly during the first week, so replenish the water daily.

• The tree stand should fit your tree. Some stands have circular rings at the top, so the ring must be large enough for the trunk to go through the hole. Avoid whittling down the sides of the trunk to fit a stand. The outer layers  of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed.

• If the tree is to be stored more than a couple of days before display, it is advisable to place its trunk in water and store it in a cool, shaded and protected area such as an unheated garage.

• If the tree has been cut within the past 12 hours, it will not be necessary to recut the trunk prior to display indoors. If it has been longer than 12 hours since harvest, the trunk should be recut to improve water uptake.

• Cutting off a disk of wood about 1/4-inch thick from the base of the trunk is all that is necessary before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don’t cut the trunk at an angle, or into a v-shape,  which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.

•  Keep displayed trees away from sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents and direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day.

• The temperature of the water used to fill the stand is not important and does not affect water uptake.

• Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree. With many stands, there can still be water in the stand even though the base of the tree is no longer submerged in the water.

• Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does not improve water uptake.

• The use of IV-type devices to supply water directly to holes drilled into the sides of the tree trunk is not as effective as displaying the tree in a more traditional, water-holding tree stand.

• Adding water-holding gels to the stand is not beneficial and they can reduce the amount of water in the stand that is available to the tree.

• Do not use additives in the water, including floral preservatives, commercial tree preservatives, molasses, sugar, bleach, soft drinks, aspirin, honey and other concoctions. Clean water is all that is needed to maintain freshness.

• Monitor your tree for dryness. Run your fingers across the needles to determine if they are dry and brittle. If the needles break easily or fall off in your hand, the tree is dry and should be removed from the house. A well-cared  for tree should normally remain fresh at least three to four weeks before drying to an unacceptable level.


Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, are as much a part of the holiday season as evergreen trees, Christmas cards and caroling.  New cultivars come in showy colors including deep red, pink, white yellow, bicolored or even speckled  bracts which are actually modified leaves. Poinsettias do well in the home and keep their color until mid-March if cared for properly.

• Choose plants with uniformly green foliage and no lower leaves missing.

• Poinsettias thrive on indirect, natural daylight — at least six hours a day. Avoid direct sunlight as this may fade the bract color. To prolong color, keep plants out of traffic areas and protect from cold drafts and excessive  heat. Ideal temperatures are 67 to 70F during the day and 60 to 62F at night. Remove damaged or diseased leaves.

• Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Check plants daily and water thoroughly whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. Plants in clay pots require more water while those in plastic pots are easily overwatered. Apply water  until it runs out the drainage hole. However, do not allow poinsettias to sit in standing water. If the container is wrapped with foil, remove it when watering or make a hole in it for drainage. Discard any collected water in the drainage receptacle.

•   A poinsettia does not require fertilization while it is in bloom. However, to maintain green foliage and promote new growth indoors after the holidays, apply a balanced all-purpose house plant fertilizer once per month and always  follow the directions on the fertilizer label.

Not poisonous

A 1995 poll funded by the Society of American Florists found that 66 percent of the respondents held the false impression that poinsettia plants are toxic if eaten. Research at Ohio State University  in 1971 showed that rats fed unusually high doses of poinsettia plant parts were not adversely affected and the POISINDEX Information Service states that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 poinsettia bracts to surpass experimental doses.

Like other non-food items, however, poinsettia plants are not edible and are not intended to be eaten. Poinsettias are a member of the Euphorbiaceae family of plants and have close genetic ties to the rubber tree, which is where natural  latex is derived.  Those who are sensitive to latex may also be sensitive to the latex from poinsettias. If eaten, parts of all plants may cause varying degrees of discomfort, but not death. Keep plants out of reach of small children.

Although commonly assumed to be poisonous to animals, poinsettia plants are not harmful to household pets unless the leaves and bracts are eaten in very large quantities. Some cats that chew on the leaves may salivate and can vomit if the  leaves are swallowed. Since cats and puppies frequently chew on new plants introduced to the home, it is prudent to place the plants out of reach.

For more information about poinsettias, download the CSU Extension Fact Sheet No. 7.412 Poinsettias written by S.E. Newman and B.E. Edmunds from the Extension website at


Dec. 12 — Mountain View Homemakers, noon.

Dec. 13 — Pagosa Peak 4-H Club meeting, 2 p.m.

Dec. 18 — Western Heritage Committee meeting, 6 p.m.

Dec. 20 — Deadline for Colorado Master Gardener registration, 4 p.m.

Dec. 20 — Wolf Creek Wonders 4-H Club meeting, 2 p.m.

Colorado State University Extension is your local university community connection for research-based information about natural resource management; living well through raising kids, eating right and spending smart;  gardening and commercial horticulture; the latest agricultural production technologies and community development.  Extension 4-H and youth development programs reach more than 100,000 young people annually.

Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended  nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.