Caring for Poinsettias

Many homes, offices and churches are decorated with festive trees, lights, and popular holiday plants like the poinsettia. December 12 marked National Poinsettia Day, a day celebrating our country’s most popular holiday plant! This day recognizes Joel Robert Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico who introduced poinsettias to our country in 1821.

In their native habitat in Mexico and Central America, poinsettias grow as shrubs and can even develop into small trees. Today, the poinsettia is prized as an indoor holiday potted plant with over 100 varieties grown in varying shades of red, burgundy, coral, pink, white and combinations of the above.

The brightly colored leaves of poinsettia are often mistaken for the flowers. These colorful leaves are called bracts and surround the small, inconspicuous, yellow flowers called cyathia. The cyathia are clustered in the center of the bracts and shed yellow pollen. Once the pollen is shed, the bracts begin to fade. When shopping for a poinsettia, choose plants that have closed flowers or those that are only slightly open and not shedding pollen.

Since poinsettias are native to warm, tropical habitats, they can be injured if exposed to low temperatures below 55°F. Despite a few warm days here and there, you will want to make sure to cover plants with a paper or plastic sheath when transporting them from the place of purchase to your car and from your car to your home or office. Exposure to low temperatures can result in damage to the bracts and leaves, and in some cases, death of the plant.

Indoor conditions during the winter are not ideal for poinsettias, but proper care will help plants perform well throughout the holiday season. Poinsettias are grown in greenhouses under conditions that mimic their native habitat – temperatures of 65-70°F with high relative humidity and bright light. Once inside the home, provide at least six hours of bright, natural daylight such as near a sunny window. Maintain air temperatures between 65 and 70° F and avoid places where plants are exposed to drafts, fluctuating air currents, and excess heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilation ducts.

Poinsettias prefer evenly moist soils that are not too wet and not too dry.  Water plants thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch.  Make sure the water begins to drain out of the holes at the base of the pot. Discard any excess water, as poinsettias left sitting in water generally develop root rots.

Signs that your plants are stressed and not happy include yellow leaves as well as rolling and dropping of leaves and bracts. Wilted plants will also drop leaves prematurely.  If wilting does occur, water the plant thoroughly to moisten the soil, then re-water again after 10 minutes. Never allow the plant to stand in excess water.

Poinsettia plants can be maintained in the home throughout the year and encouraged to rebloom the following winter with some coaxing. It is often easier to discard plants once they have finished blooming and look forward to purchasing fresh, vibrantly colored plants next year.