Red to white, speckled to striped, nothing says Christmas like poinsettias. Native to the hillsides of southern Mexico, this weedy shrub is now the most popular Christmas flower.
Brought to America in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, cuttings were distributed to numerous Botanical gardens to propagate. They were first sold in the U.S. in 1850. There are now more than 100 varieties available. The date of Poinsett’s death, Dec. 12, was officially designated National Poinsettia Day by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002.
Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not toxic plants, though its sap may cause some irritation to those with latex allergies. It’s also best to keep it away from puppies and kittens as it can cause tummy troubles.
These rumors haven’t prevented people from purchasing these plants. The value of potted poinsettias totaled $146 million in 2013, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tips for Taking Care
Many think the colorful part of the plant is its flower, but these are bracts, its modified leaves. Its flowers are actually the tiny yellow centers.
If you purchase these plants, select plants that have little to no pollen showing. The colorful bracts start to drop after pollen starts to fall.
The best way to care for a poinsettia is to keep it in bright light, watering it only as its soil starts to dry, keeping it away from drafts and not letting its leaves touch a window. If you want to keep this plant growing, it can be moved outside after the last frost when the soil is warm. Kept in a pot, it is easily brought back into the house, but you can also plant it directly into the soil. Plant in a well-drained area in full to partial sun where it is protected from the wind. When new growth begins, fertilize with an all-purpose fertilizer. If they get leggy, they can be pruned or you can pinch the branch tips to make it a bushier plant. When you need to repot, use a sterile, lightweight potting mix.
Bring Back the Blooms
The poinsettia’s colorful bracts are photoperiodic, requiring 12 to 14 hours of total darkness each day. Starting Oct. 1, place the plant in a box or cover with a dark cloth, and place in a dark closet. Following the dark hours, place in full sun for at least 4 hours a day. Cool temperatures overnight (50 to 60 degrees), are also important. When the bracts start to show color again, bring them back into the bright light and start to feed with a high-nitrogen fertilizer every two weeks. Enjoy another season of its charm and beauty.