Nothing says Christmas more than a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Did you know that December 12th is known as National Poinsettia Day? Plant breeders have developed a wide range of colors in hues of white, purple, orange, and pink, but red poinsettias continue to be the most traditional color of the holiday season.
Poinsettias originate from Mexico and Central America. In 1825, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina was named the first United States ambassador to Mexico. While there, he became interested in plants. In 1820’s, he collected poinsettias in southern Mexico and sent them back to South Carolina. Later, the plants were called “Poinsettias” in honor of Dr. Poinsett’s discovery. He also sent plant specimens to John Bartram, a well-known botanist in Philadelphia. Poinsettias were first sold as cut flowers by Robert Buist of Pennsylvania. In the early 1900’s, poinsettias were sold as potted plants by the Ecke Nursery in California. The Ecke family was responsible for promoting the plants as the Christmas symbol we all know today.
The first step is making sure you purchase a healthy plant. Select a poinsettia that has dark green leaves, deeply colored bracts, healthy yellow flowers in the center, strong stems, a balanced shape, and no yellow or wilted leaves. When you bring your poinsettia home, place it in a well-lit, east-facing window, where it will receive good morning sunlight, but be shaded in the afternoon. Do not let the foliage touch the cold glass of the window, as that will damage the plant. Poinsettias do best in temperatures between 65 to 75 °F. Do not place where a heat vent blows directly on the plant. If poinsettias are exposed to temperatures that are too cold or too hot, the leaves will wilt.
Proper watering is key to ensuring a season of enjoyment. Improper watering practices are one of the main reasons poinsettias do not thrive. Water the plant when the soil feels dry to touch. If the plant was wrapped in decorative foil, either remove it from the foil or punch a hole in the bottom to prevent water retention. Never let the plant sit in water, as it will lead to wilted, yellow leaves and root rot.
Many people think that the colorful bracts are the flowers, but they are actually modified leaves. The flowers are the tiny yellow buds that are in the center of the bracts.
By following the proper temperature, light exposure, and watering tips, poinsettias will stay beautiful for many weeks during the holiday season.
For more information on caring for poinsettias, please see HGIC 1561, Poinsettia.