It never fails, and I am not complaining, that I receive at least one poinsettia from a caring friend or relative every year. When I was younger, they only came in the traditional deep red color, but over the years, you can now find them in white, pink, marbled, cream, orange and pale green shades. This colorful show is actually not the flower, but the leaves or bracts of the plant. The flower itself is nested in the yellow grouping, known as the cyathia in each leaf bunch’s center.
The poinsettia was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who began sending the plant back to his greenhouses in South Carolina as early as 1826.
This plant is native to Central America and grows in a 1,200-mile span between Mexico and Guatemala. There they grow to shrub-like proportions. Most of the poinsettias sold in the U.S. are cultivated by the Ecke family business located in Encinitas, California. Their farm produces 70 million poinsettia varieties sold around the Christmas holiday.
I hate to say that I have yet to “save” a poinsettia plant. I know it may be hard to believe, but even a Master Gardener occasionally commits herbicide when faced with a plant for which we do not know how to care. Let’s make this year different!
Poinsettias need a sunny spot and temperatures between 65–70 degrees during the day and about 60 degrees at night to be happy. When the temperatures are not consistent, the plant will experience leaf drop.
Water your poinsettia once a week or when the soil is dry to the touch until early April. In mid-April or May, cut the lankier stems back to about 4 inches above the soil and repot it to a bigger container. The new pot should be 1-2 inches larger than the previous container. Use fresh, sterile soil and once repotted, water your plant and return to a sunny window. When you see new growth on the plant, start to fertilize your plant every couple of weeks. You can use house plant fertilizer and follow the directions on the package. You can relocate your houseplant to the great outdoors in early summer when nighttime temperatures do not fall under 50 degrees.
As with all houseplants, do not put them in direct sunlight as this can burn the leaves and cause sunspots. Gradually introduce them to the sunlight until they can withstand direct light.
By the middle of July, your new growth should be coming along quite nicely. At this time, you should prune your plant by pinching off an inch of growth from each stem. You will prune it again at the beginning of September, only this time, you will trim off two to three inches, allowing three or four leaves to remain on each stem. This will encourage your poinsettia to branch out. When nighttime temperatures start to drop below 50 degrees, bring your plant back in the house and set in a sunny window, continuing to water and fertilize your plant.
Beginning in October and lasting through the end of November, keep your poinsettia in complete darkness for about 12–14 hours a day. The rest of the time set your plant in the sunny window. By Thanksgiving, you should stop the dark period altogether, and you can stop fertilizing your plant. Don’t overwater; let your plant dry to the touch. Hopefully, your plant will have responded to all of the loving care you provided and will be a beautiful centerpiece in your home for Christmas. A well-cared-for poinsettia can live for up to two years.
However, poinsettias are susceptible to several diseases, mostly fungal and include root rot, root and stem rot, black root rot, scab, powdery mildew and blight. You can purchase a fungal spray for your plants; always follow the directions on the container.
They are also susceptible to bacterial and parasitic concerns. Phytoplasmas are pathogens that cause poinsettias to have stunted growth and more prolific branching, traits that poinsettia growers crave. If you have ruled out a fungus, contact our extension hotline to speak with a Master Gardener for further assistance.
Last but not least, how many times have we heard that this plant is toxic to humans and animals? Rose Ann Gould Soloway, clinical toxicologist, and Serkalem Mekonnen, Certified Specialist in Poison Information stated, “In most cases, exposure to any parts of the poinsettia plant in children or pets has very little, if any effect. If swallowed, it may cause mild irritation: nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Touching it may cause a rash. There have been reports of gardeners who work with the plant frequently developing a rash from handling the plant,” as quoted on the National Capital Poison Center’s website. “The poinsettia plant is often considered deadly. That’s wrong. Poinsettia can be irritating, but it is not fatal if eaten. If children and pets eat it, they can develop a mouth rash and stomach upset. The sap can cause a skin rash, too.”
So, it’s wise to keep them out of reach of dogs, cats and toddlers, but the risk is mild discomfort, not deadly.
Hopefully, with these tips, you can keep your Christmas plants thriving beyond the holiday season.