When Joel Roberts Poinsett, ambassador to Mexico in the 1820’s, took cuttings from a plant he found growing in the Mexican countryside he couldn’t have guessed the role this plant would play at Christmastime. The poinsettia has become synonymous with the holidays. Today, they are available in shades of red, burgundy, rose, pink, and white and can be solid colored, marbled or speckled.
Some poinsettias are even dusted with glitter and spray painted just about any color of the rainbow.
What would Christmas be without a poinsettia showing off its colorful bracts in your home? Colorful bracts you may be asking? Yup, it may be hard to believe but all that color is actually on modified leaves called bracts. A poinsettia’s true flowers are those tiny structures that look a little like seeds at the base of the bracts.
When choosing a poinsettia, check out its true flowers. They should be green or red tipped. Also make sure the plant has dark green leaves and is full and pretty on all sides. Leave the plant at the store or garden center if it has yellowing leaves, if it is wilting or if the soil is wet. Don’t walk, run away from poinsettias if they are displayed near entry or exit doors. Poinsettias hate drafts.
Make sure your poinsettia is wrapped and covered when you take it home if outside temperatures are below 50°. Once home, place it in a spot with bright, but indirect, light away from drafts – warm or cold. If the air your home is dry, mist your poinsettia periodically.
Poinsettias are very sensitive to overwatering. Wait until the soil feels dry before watering, and then water until it runs through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Then let the water drain completely before putting it back on its saucer or in its decorative foil cover. Never let your poinsettia sit in water.
Poinsettias do not need fertilizer while they are blooming.
Instead of tossing your poinsettia out when the holidays are over, follow these tips.
Let it continue to grow in a room with bright, indirect light. If leaves turn light green, move the plant to a brighter location. Poinsettias prefer temperatures similar to people – daytime temps of 65 to 70° and near 60° at night. Continue misting your poinsettia.
In January, begin feeding the plant once a month with a balanced houseplant fertilizer.
Poinsettias get leggy as they grow. Prune them back in February or early March so they are 4 to 6 inches tall, leaving a few leaves on each stem. New growth will begin in leaf axils. Periodically check plants for signs of insects and treat as soon as possible if necessary.
In early June, prune the tips of all stems to encourage side branching. Repot plants into slightly larger pots and move them outside to a location with bright, indirect light. They can be ‘planted’ – pot and all – into the garden. In mid-July, tip prune plants again and move them into full sun. Continue to water and fertilize once a month. In early September, it’s time for poinsettias to move back indoors.
Toward the end of September, poinsettias require some special attention to encourage re-blooming. Give them 13 hours of complete darkness every day. Move them to a spare room with curtains drawn or cover them with a box. After their bout in darkness, provide 11 hours of bright light each day. Nighttime temperatures must be in the low 60’s. Continue to water and increase fertilizing to every couple of weeks. To maintain evenness of color on plants, turn them regularly.
Toward the end of November, move poinsettias to a place that gets at least six hours of bright light. If all goes well, poinsettias should ‘bloom’ again in time for Christmas.
Today, December 12th, is National Poinsettia Day. I think Mr. Poinsett would be delighted to know his cuttings taken in the Mexican countryside have become an important holiday tradition. In honor of the day, head out to garden center that grows its own poinsettias, like Shady Hill Gardens in Elburn, and surround yourself in their holiday splendor. Enjoy the holidays with me!