When the stockings are emptied, the wrappings are tossed and the dinner is eaten, Christmas is finally over. But you can still extend the glow of the holiday season with your poinsettia.

With some regular attention, you can enjoy that Christmas icon into the next winter holidays.

"Keeping them going in the house is quite easy, like a house plant, really," says Sandra Salivar, a master gardener and Green Valley resident.

Newer varieties of the Mexican tropical species stay colorful longer.

"When you take care of them, most of the new ones will keep their color as long as Easter," Salivar says.

Salivar is trained in greenhouse management and worked for garden centers before retiring. She has tended several poinsettias well past winter, although she isn't growing any right now.

Bedding plant

It's difficult to grow poinsettias in the ground in these parts because it's too cold in the winter, says Phil Seader. He's the plant expert at Green Things Nursery, which grows more than 15,000 potted poinsettias each season.

Covers are too heavy to protect the plant from frost or freeze unless you have a frame over which to drape them.

If you want to try, here are tips from the Harlow Gardens & Nursery website (www.harlowgardens.com):

• When the plant looks spent in late January or February, stop watering to make it go dormant.

• When the threat of frost passes in March or April, cut the plant to 6 inches above soil level. Water sparingly for about two weeks.

• New shoots will start to develop. Transplant to a well-amended bed with good drainage and in a protected area. Give it a good soaking.

• Between June 1 and Dec. 1, feed once a month with garden fertilizer high in nitrogen.

• To create a bushy plant, prune away in early July any new growth back to about 6 inches from the old stem.

• For the plant to set buds for flowers and bracts by the holidays, it needs to sit in darkness for enough consecutive nights. Any artificial nighttime light source in September, October or November will delay blooming.

Seader from Green Things suggests 11 to 13 hours of nighttime darkness during this time.

Outdoor potted plant

An outdoor potted poinsettia allows a bit more flexibility than plants in the ground, Seader says. You can bring it in to keep it warm on freezing or frosty nights and to keep it in a dark, unused room while you're trying to set buds.

Aside from transplantation, follow the same directions for a potted poinsettia.

Indoor plant

Salivar has found success using these methods:

• Place plant close to a sunny window, but not in direct light. Also place it out of cold and warm drafts. Don't set it on top of televisions.

• Keep soil evenly moist from the time you receive the plant.

• Mist the plant once or twice a month to add some humidity. A sunny bathroom is a good spot to put the plant.

• After the plant loses its leaves, which it will do as it goes dormant, cut off the "nasty looking" tops.

• As new branches grow, cut them down past the second set of new leaves to make the plant bushy.

• Feed it monthly with all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.

• When placing the plant in the dark to form buds, choose a cool place in the home. Cut back on watering during this time so that the soil dries between waterings.

Even if you can't get the poinsettia to set colorful bracts, the green plant will still please.

Says Salivar: "They do make really nice houseplants just like they are."

Poinsettias are not poisonous - Period

And no one has been able to prove that the popular holiday plant is even toxic, says Keith Boesen, manager of the Poison Control Center at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.

Boesen cites a 1978 study out of Duquesne University's School of Pharmacy. Its conclusion: Even if a 50-pound child ingested 1.25 pounds of poinsettia leaves, about 500 to 600 leaves, no toxic effects would occur.

What poison control center advisers see are unhappy side effects from eating or touching the plant.

"The No. 1 concern with a poinsettia and any child is that they can choke on it," Boesen says.

The danger is especially pronounced now as people cleaning up after the holidays move plants from high places to areas where children can get to them.

Here's what to do if other side effects occur.

• Eating pieces can cause upset stomach or vomiting. Call a doctor if these persist for several hours.

• Coming in contact with the milky sap can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and mouth. Rinse out irritated mouth or eyes. Wash irritated skin with soap and water.

• Some people and animals can have an allergic reaction to the sap that includes rash, hives and swelling. Call the poison center, 1-800-222-1222 for advice.

Did You Know?

Poinsettia plants are safe to compost for your garden. Treat it like you would any other plant for the pile.

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net