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Poinsettias for the holidays

Poinsettias have been part of the Christmas tradition for more than 100 years, but there are some misconceptions about the plant.

The biggest myth is that poinsettias are poisonous. This myth was busted in 1971 by an Ohio State University Medial Center study. Results showed even with moderately high doses of poinsettia in their system, test rats had no symptoms of toxicity or changes in behavior. Rest assured that your neighborhood rats won't be harmed by you putting out a lovely poinsettia for Christmas.

Let me make this clear that poinsettias are not intended to be eaten as a salad for the family meal or fed to your pet as an extra treat for the holidays. But then, you need not rush to the emergency pet hospital should your pet grab a mouthful of poinsettia leaves. The worst thing that could happen is that the sap might cause a tummy ache in children who are actually able to swallow a bite of the extremely bitter tasting leaves.

Poinsettia flowerAnother misconception is that large red poinsettia leaves are the flower. This is false. The actual poinsettia flower is the tiny yellow bud in the center of the plant.

Poinsettia's are also known as the Mexican flame leaf or the Christmas star. It is native to Mexico and Central American where it grows in balmy, moist climates.

In the United States, the poinsettia does ok as a temporary houseplant if cared for properly. They like daytime temperatures between 65 and 70 and slightly cooler at night. They require bright indirect light and no drafts. Contrary to some popular beliefs, poinsettias don't grow naturally in pots. In their natural habitat, poinsettias can grow up to 10 feet in height. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day as declared by congress to honor U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joel Robert Poinsett (1800s) who first brought the plant back to the United States (Dec. 12 was the day that Joel passed away-- not for ingesting the poinsettia leaves).

During April and May the poinsettia is actually green all over. It's not until the shorter days of winter that the upper leaves turn red. It requires about 10 weeks of days with daylight limited to 12 hours or less. In February and March, the plant begins to naturally drop it's leaves which are replaced by new growth a little later in the spring.

Here are some more myths and facts regarding the Christmas poinsettia:

  • The Aztecs called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitle." During the 14th - 16th century the sap was used to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye.
  • Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravans because poinsettias could not be grown in the high altitude.
  • William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked to give Euphorbia pulcherrima a new name as it became more popular. At that time Mr. Prescott had just published a book called the Conquest of Mexico in which he detailed Joel Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. So, Prescott named the plant the poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett’s discovery.
  • The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. The plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning "very beautiful."
  • Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico being appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820's. At the time of his appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war. Because of his interest in botany he introduced the American Elm into Mexico. During his stay in Mexico he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and as an ambassador he will always be remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.
  • John Bartram is credited as being the first person to sell poinsettias under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima.

Poinsettia care tips

Water

Examine the soil daily, and when the surface is dry to the touch, water the soil until it runs freely out the drainage hole in the container. The amount of water recommended in the table for use in various sized containers ensures that enough water will be applied so that some will run out the drainage hole. If a saucer is used, discard the water that collects in it. Do not leave the plant standing in water. Overly wet soil lacks sufficient air, which results in root injury.

A wilted plant may drop its leaves prematurely, so check the soil frequently. Plants exposed to high light and low humidity require more frequent watering. If wilting does occur, immediately water with the recommended amount, and 5 minutes later water again.

Light

If you obtain a poinsettia for your home, place it near a sunny window where it will have the most available sunlight. A window that faces south, east or west is better than one facing north. Do not let any part of the plant touch the cold windowpane because this may injure it.
Temperature

To keep the plant in bloom, maintain it at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F during the daylight hours and, if possible, move it to a cooler place at night. Because root rot disease is more prevalent at temperatures below 60 degrees F, do not put the poinsettia in a room colder than this. Avoid exposing the plant to hot or cold drafts, which may cause premature leaf drop.

Reflowering

Poinsettias can be reflowered the following Christmas, but unless a yearlong schedule of care is observed, the results usually are not good. For such a schedule, continue normal watering of the soil until the first of April, then allow it to dry gradually. Do not let it get so dry at any time that the stems shrivel. Following the drying period, store the plant in a cool (60 degrees F), airy location on its side or upright.

In the middle of May, cut the stems back to about 4 inches above the soil, and either replant in a pot 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter or shake old soil off the roots and repot in the same container, using a new soilless mix. Many good commercial potting mixes are available. Choose one that is not very finely textured. Using soil from the garden can introduce disease to the plant. Water the soil thoroughly after potting; wait five minutes and water again. Then put the plant near the window that is exposed to the most sunlight. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 75 degrees F, and water when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch. After new growth appears, fertilize every two weeks with a complete-analysis, water soluble fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label for flowering plants.

In early June, leave the plant in the pot, move it outdoors, and place it in a lightly shaded location. Continue watering and fertilizing the plant while it is outdoors. Pinch each stem (remove 1 inch of terminal growth) in early July. Then, between August 15 and September 1, cut or pinch the new stems back, allowing three or four leaves to remain on each shoot. After this second pinch, bring the plant indoors and again place it near a window with a sunny exposure. If the plant is not pinched, it will grow too tall and be unsightly. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F at night and continue watering and fertilizing.

Poinsettias are short-day plants, which means they flower about 10 weeks after the daylight shortens to about 12 hours or less. Therefore, to have the plant in full flower by Christmas, keep it in complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. from the first part of October until Thanksgiving. During this period, any kind of light exposure between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. will delay flowering. A closet, opaque box or opaque cloth will keep the plant in darkness during those hours. Remember to put the plant near a sunny window in the daytime. Continue fertilizing the plant until mid-December.