The Christmas poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is one of the most popular Christmas houseplants. It is possible to keep the plant through the year.
When in bloom, what appears at first sight to be flowers are actually bracts. In simple terms, bracts are brightly colored leaves to attract pollinating insects and birds. The bracts surround the small, normally yellow flowers at the centre of each growth. If the poinsettia is over-watered, the colorful bracts are often the first part of the plant to visibly suffer.
In their native habitat and in areas that do not experience any frost, poinsettias are perennials that can grow as high as 10 feet tall.
Your poinsettia is fresh if little or no pollen is showing in the center flower cluster and the flowers are green or red-tipped. Once the plant loses all its pollen it will also drop its colorful leaf-like bracts.
The milky sap or latex of the poinsettia is highly irritating to the skin and eyes.
When purchasing a poinsettia, the more blooms a poinsettia has the more expensive the plant.
According to the University of Illinois, 80% of poinsettias are purchased by women, 75% of Americans prefer red poinsettias to white or pink and poinsettias are the best selling flowering potted plant in the U.S.
While the traditional color for Christmas poinsettia has been red, pinks and whites were alternatives in years gone by, with many examples of cultivars to choose from.
Other colors include scarlet, violet, marble, apricot, peach and even two-colored bracts such as “Jingle Bells” cultivars, with various colorations and patterning on the bracts. It is worth noting that white poinsettias have proved notoriously difficult to produce consistently and most are off-white. Recently the cream-colored poinsettia has come into fashion in some countries, adding to the poinsettia’s continuing popularity as a Christmas gift houseplant.
Poinsettias can be kept beyond the festive season, though in general, people often tend to leave this for commercial growers and buy a new plant in order to enjoy the flowers each winter. A poinsettia will last for further years if its stems are cut back after the leaves have fallen in late winter or early spring.
55F is normally recommended as the minimum temperature to which a poinsettia should ever be exposed and 65F is the advisable maximum. By keeping in cool shade until spring, the plant can then be repotted, then watered and fed through the summer.
The key season for a poinsettia is the fall, when the plant must be kept in total darkness for ideally 14 hours overnight, i.e. 14 hours in each 24-hour period for a period of eight weeks, for the bracts to grow again from buds that should have developed.
A black plastic bag, box or suitable cupboard can be used to maintain the darkness required during the fall. This extreme measure is needed to control the daylight available to the plant so that it flowers during the Christmas period in the northern hemisphere.
The main factors in maintaining a poinsettia are light and air, which this plant thrives on. To suit this a shallow container such as a tray works well. It also means that the poinsettia can be used in plant combinations for color and depth if the right light is available. As good light is required, suitable cacti and succulent plants can be added to the display. Poinsettia can be cultivated as a container plant or a small shrub or as a standard.
Poinsettias need to be kept out of draughts and should not be exposed to sudden changes in temperature. While the poinsettia is growing, turning the plant regularly helps maintain consistent growth in the bracts. When in bloom, the poinsettia should be misted regularly to help keep the air moist around the leaves. Being close to heating is not advisable for the same reason.
However, the poinsettia’s compost can be left much drier than azaleas, for example. By keeping the compost just moist, a poinsettia will thrive. One method by which this might be accomplished is by placing the container inside a larger one containing a damp medium. A good guide to watering is to let the compost surface dry out between each good watering session.
Root rot from overwatering is the number one cause of premature poinsettia death. Whether the plant is white, pink or red, the care is the same. The soil should be allowed to dry completely between waterings. While the plants are indoors, usually in a bright window, a cup of water every two weeks is ample, and the best watering method is to place the plants in a bowl or saucer of water so that they absorb the moisture from the roots. After the leaves drop, the plant should be trimmed back.
Since poinsettias, like everyone’s favorite aunt, are highly sensitive to any temperature variation, they should be kept out of drafty areas and placed where they get at least six hours of sunlight. As long as the pot allows for space to grow, the poinsettia can be kept indoors like this year round. And to keep them indoors is not as dangerous as urban legend has it. While eating poinsettias is not recommended, they are not fatally poisonous as often rumored.
In planting zones 9 and higher, poinsettias can be established outdoors as perennials. For those wanting to garden poinsettias, the time to transplant them is in the spring after the last frost (approximately February 21 for Dr. Bailey and his zone 9 neighbors). Poinsettias enjoy partial shade and should be planted on the north-east side of a building (the north-west side being the worst as it faces the direction of on-coming cold weather). Loose, coarse, easily draining soil is the best for these subtropical plants.
It is also recommended that the gardener cut back the plants in spring and then again in August to insure that they are the right size for the Christmas season. For example, if a gardener wants the poinsettias to be around five feet tall in December, he or she should cut the plants back to about three feet in August. Well-established poinsettias planted near Dr. Bailey’s Kingsville home have been known to grow as tall as eight or nine feet.
Even better, there is a variety of wild poinsettia native to the South Texas region. A smaller version of the Christmas poinsettia, the wild poinsettia thrives like a weed and blooms unpredictably throughout the year: a nice addition to southern gardens as well.
So black-thumbs everywhere should not despair. Whether kept indoors or out, with a little care and regular watering, poinsettias can survive this Christmas and be enjoyed for many Christmases to come.