The holiday season is upon us, and decorating is in the air. While each year we seem to get more options for
holiday plants, few can top the popularity of the poinsettia. While the red poinsettia is still the most popular, there is a wide array of colors and sizes that can fit almost any home. With proper care, poinsettias can add color to the home for months, long after the holiday decorations have been put away.
Poinsettias were introduced to the United States and named after our first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. An amateur botanist as well as an ambassador, he collected plants he found growing in the wild in Mexico and sent them home to his greenhouse in South Carolina. If they did well, he shared with other gardeners. In their native climate, poinsettias bloom when the days get shorter and the nights get longer — in the winter months — so it was a perfect blooming plant for the holidays.
While many people call the showy red, white or colorful part of a poinsettia the “flower,” the true bloom is found in the center of the showy colorful bracts, and it’s called the cyathium. The cyathia are small yellow structures, which are not very showy and fade fairly quickly. Luckily, the showy bracts can hold their colors for months. While the original poinsettias were red, today you can also buy poinsettias in a variety of shades of pink, white, purple and yellow; there’s even an orange; variety that starts showing up for the fall holidays.
Poinsettias are not winter-hardy in Arkansas and must be considered houseplants in order to keep them longer than the holiday season. Some gardeners try to keep poinsettias living from year to year, but maintaining a plant as pretty the following season is difficult without a greenhouse. Poinsettias need bright sunlight during the day and total darkness at night in the months leading up to the holidays. Under this light/dark regimen, the bracts begin to turn color. Commercial growers have this down to a science and can force the plants into bloom for the holiday season. While poinsettias can recolor under home conditions, the quality is rarely what we can get from greenhouse production.
Helpful home hints
While some gardeners keep poinsettias alive for years as houseplants, a more common refrain is an early demise once poinsettias make it home. To aid in success, start with healthy plants. If it is cold outside when purchasing poinsettias, keep the plants protected on the drive home; they are tropical plants and can decline rapidly if exposed to cold temperatures for extended periods. Avoid buying from a store that houses their poinsettias outside in the parking lot!
To keep them looking their best, poinsettias need bright light and even moisture. Overwatering is the leading cause of death, but so is low light. Many gardeners unknowingly put their potted treasures as a centerpiece on a table in low light. This can cause leaves to start shedding in record time. As leaves shed, gardeners assume they need water, and can drown the light-seeking plant.
When bringing a poinsettia home, place it in an area that receives either direct sunlight or very bright light for a
minimum of several hours a day. Remove the decorative plastic wrapper, or at least pull it back so it is not tightly wrapped around the plant. The plastic or foil wraps often cut down on air circulation and can hold in too much water. If you remove the wrapping totally, be sure to use a saucer to collect water from the drainage hole. Stick your finger into the soil and only water when it is dry. Both waterlogged or thirsty plants will wilt and shed leaves. Once you figure out a suitable watering schedule, the plant can pretty much take care of itself.
Not only do we have more color options today, we also have more choices in size and shape. There are small miniatures up to topiary tree-forms and all sizes in between. Hanging baskets and mixed baskets are also available. And while we do have many more color choices today, if you see the truly bizarre colors like blue or green poinsettias, know that those aren’t their real color. They have been sprayed with a plant dye and often have glitter in the mix; they didn’t come by that look naturally!
Poinsettias are a great gift to give or receive, and with just a little care, can be a gift that keeps on giving for months.