Every year, without fail, we have to find out how to care for a poinsettia. Nothing quite says Christmas is coming like a colorful pot of ruby-red poinsettia. This festive favorite cheerfully heralds in the holiday season as we look forward to gathering with friends and family. But the rest of the year, once the leaves have inevitably dropped, we're ashamed to say we forget them.
Native to Mexico, the plant arrived in Europe around 200 years ago, when diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett spotted the vibrant plant and made it his mission to bring it back to the United States, where it took on his name. In the decades and centuries that have followed, this fascinating flower has been a firm favorite ever since.
Whether you’ve picked one up to adorn your hall table, or have received one as a gift, it’s worth knowing how to look after a poinsettia as part of your Christmas traditions.
How do you take care of a poinsettia?
Firstly, choose your plant carefully.
Opt for a garden center or reputable store as the low temperatures of outdoor displays and stalls can drastically reduce the lifespan of the plant. A caring seller will have made sure to place the poinsettias in a drought-free spot of their store. Compost in the pot should be neither sandy dry nor soaking wet, so check this out. A way to select a high-grade plant is to look for undamaged, dense foliage and budding flowers in-between the colored bracts (the upper leaves which many mistake for flowers).
Once you’ve made your choice, Dr Susanne Lux, International Campaign Coordinator at expert Poinsettia grower Stars for Europe recommends to ‘wrap your poinsettia in paper for the journey home to protect it from draughts and temperatures below 12ºC. This protects it from damage that is initially invisible but can lead to premature loss of leaves after a few days.’
As the poinsettia comes from Central America, it naturally loves light and warmth. Dr Lux advises to keep the plants at ‘a temperature of between 15 and 22ºC. In the winter months it is happiest by a south-facing window, but don’t worry that direct sunlight may be a problem as the UK’s winter climate means that bright sunlight is only minimal and the danger of too much sunlight hitting the leaves is virtually non-existent.’ However, don’t set too close to radiators or fires as they can overheat.
Similarly, these warm-loving plants don’t do well with draughts, so make sure to choose a cozy sheltered spot to keep them healthy and happy.
How often do you water a poinsettia?
As with most houseplants, the amount of water a poinsettia needs varies depending on temperature, location and the size of both the plant and its pot.
‘For a standard pot with a diameter of 13cm, give it no more than a small glass of water, around 0.2 liters,’ advises Dr Lux. ‘This prevents large pores in the soil from clogging up and waterlogging. Mini poinsettias should not be given more than one shot glass of water. Excess water that is still in the planter after ten minutes should be removed as this can lead to overwatering.’ If in doubt, it’s better to keep these plants a little more dry than moist and ‘to water them little and often, rather than rarely but in great quantity,’ notes Dr Lux.
Only water poinsettias when the soil is noticeably dry, which can range from every day to every three days. An easy way to check if simply by lifting up the plant; if it feels light, it’s time to water. Pay extra attention to smaller pots as they dry out faster – mini poinsettias, especially, will mot likely need watering daily.
Along with fresh watering, a dose of liquid fertilizer once a week from about a month after purchase will prolong the life of a poinsettia.
If you’re using cut poinsettias in a vase, cut the bracts, dip the cut end in warm, around 60ºC, water for a few seconds, then immediately in cold water. Once arranged, make sure to replace with fresh water every few days.
What is the life expectancy of a poinsettia plant?
Although many people think it’s time to say goodbye to their plants once the bracts start to fade, you can - with care - keep your poinsettia year round and watch it bloom in time for many Christmases to come.
Continue watering the poinsettia carefully, and keeping on eye on the warmth and draughts of the area to ensure they survive the festive period. Once you make it to early spring, you’ll need to prune the plant to about 10cm then, after about a month, usually in May, get repotting.
By November, you’ll be starting to look for the brightly colored bracts to flourish which will, more often than not, require forcing. If possible, expose the poinsettia to 12 hours of bright light and 12 hours of darkness until the colors return.
How is a poinsettia related to Christmas?
We take it for granted that poinsettias are a part of Christmas, but how did that connection happen? Well, the clue is partly in the original Spanish name, Flor de Nochebuena, meaning Flowers of the Holy Night. The actual reason it has become linked to Christmas has few myths attached to it.
One Mexican legend has a poor child bringing weeds as a gift to church on Christmas Eve, and when there they blossomed into red poinsettias. Another theory is that the star shaped pattern of the plant represents the Star of Bethlehem, while the bright red color of the bracts represents the blood of Christ.
What colors do poinsettias come in?
While red poinsettias are by the far the most common, the bracts actually come in a plethora of shades and even patterns, meaning there’s a breed to suit any taste or style.
On the market today you’re likely to find shades of white, cream, salmon, magenta, apricot and lemon to name but a few. Then, in addition to the purely solid colored bracts of some, you can also find some interesting variations, like marbled or mottled patterns. Shapes, too, can differ from pointed or jagged to rounded or crinkled.
Is the poinsettia plant poisonous?
There is indeed a mild poison in poinsettia, but it’s nothing to worry about. The Mayo Clinic states that ‘poinsettia plants are less toxic than once believed and, in most cases, poinsettia exposure causes only discomfort.’
That said, do keep out of reach of children and pets and, if you see a child eating the leaves, then wash their mouth with fresh water. If there is a severe reaction in anyone, always call your local emergency services.
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