From the Vine: Poinsettias

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The poinsettia, also known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to Mexico. According to a Mexican legend, a young girl named Pepita had no gift to present to baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. In her desperation, an angel appeared and told her to pick some plants from the roadside and place them in the church. When she did, the plain green plants burst into vibrant red flowers, and these were believed to be a miraculous gift.

The poinsettia was introduced to the US by Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, who discovered the plant in the early 19th century and brought it back to South Carolina. Poinsettias became associated with the Christmas season in the US, and December 12th is celebrated as National Poinsettia Day in honor of Joel Poinsett’s birthday.

Poinsettias naturally bloom in December, coinciding with the Christmas season. The bright red bracts of the plant, which are often mistaken for flowers resemble the festive colors associated with Christmas. Over time, the poinsettia has become a cultural symbol of Christmas in many Western countries. It is widely used in holiday decorations, both indoors and outdoors, and is a popular gift during the Christmas season. Poinsettias are widely available in nurseries and stores during the holiday season, making them easily accessible for people looking to add festive decorations to their homes.

When selecting poinsettias, look for plants that have lots of dark green foliage from top to bottom. Plants that have yellowing lower leaves will not last as long as those whose lower leaves are still dark green. Also look at the plant’s bracts – these are the large colorful leaves that resemble petals. Choose plants with bracts that are undamaged and brightly colored.

Poinsettias dislike the cold and should be kept at temperatures above 50 degrees at all times. Once home, choose a location that is brightly lit and free from drafts. Plants kept in an area that stays between 55 and 75 degrees will look good the longest.

Poinsettias like to stay evenly moist – never completely dry or sitting in standing water. They are often displayed sitting in decorative foil coverings or ornamental containers that do not have drainage holes in the bottom. Be sure to take your poinsettia out of these types of decorative pots before watering. Water your poinsettia whenever the surface of the soil appears dry and the plant feels light when you lift it. The best way to water a poinsettia is to place it in a sink and add water until it begins to drip out of the bottom of the pot. Allow the plant to remain in the sink until all extra water has drained out of the pot and then place it back into its ornamental container. If your poinsettia is sitting in a container with a saucer underneath, pour out any extra water the saucer captures after watering.

There is little need to fertilize poinsettias until after Christmas since most plants sold have enough nutrients in their soil to keep them happy for at least 30 days. You also do not have to worry about keeping poinsettia plants away from pets, children, or hungry relatives. Despite common belief, poinsettias are not poisonous! This is just an urban legend that began in the early 1920’s and continues to persist. People with sensitive skin may develop a slight rash after coming in contact with the white sap produced in all parts of poinsettia plants.

While it is possible to keep poinsettias living year after year, for the majority of us the most realistic thing to do with a poinsettia after it starts to look bad is to add it to the compost pile. For those with a green thumb, keeping poinsettias going from year to year is not too difficult. After the holidays, keep poinsettia plants in a warm, brightly lit area. Cut off the flowers once they begin to fade and either add a pelleted slow-release fertilizer to the soil or fertilize plants twice a month with a water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle Grow, Peter’s Plant Food, fish emulsion, or compost tea. When all threat of frost has passed in spring poinsettias can be placed outside in a partially shaded location until fall. Pinch the tips a few times over the summer to encourage bushy growth. To get poinsettias to bloom in time for Christmas, bring them back inside by the end of September and provide them with bright light during the day and at least 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness every night. These long periods of darkness are needed to initiate flowering. Poinsettia plants should begin to bloom after nine to 11 weeks of long night treatment.

For more information on Poinsettias and their care, visit the NC State poinsettia website.