Poinsettias make a great holiday gift

Poinsettias receive their bright colorings from the leaves’ flower buds. Photo by Sidney Hancock

Nothing says Christmas like a poinsettia. Almost everyone has probably received one at some time and delightfully so.

Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve become more inquisitive – always seeking an interesting topic to write about next. Walking into the grocery store, I was immediately greeted by the festive plants all wrapped up and ready to travel to their new holiday homes.

Poinsettia History

Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, were introduced to the United States in 1828 by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett was the first U.S ambassador to Mexico and was a botanist in his free time. While searching for new plant species, he discovered the poinsettia in southern Mexico and sent cuttings back to the U.S.

Poinsettias were cultivated in Mexico long before Poinsett’s discovery. The plants were prized by Aztec kings for their brilliant colors, medicinal uses and religious connotations. Since the plants could not be grown in the high altitudes of the capital city, kings would have the plants brought in by caravans.

In the Christian tradition, the poinsettia was considered a symbol of purity as the red color symbolized the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice. Star-shaped leaves were said to represent the Star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to the place where Christ was born.

These interpretations and legends led to the plants being called flores de noche buena or “flowers of the holy night.” Poinsettias were used in Nativity processions and eventually, the plant caught on as a Christmas staple in the United States in the 20th century. 

Poinsettia Care

While red is the most popular, today’s poinsettias could be found in a wide range of colors, including shades of pink, white, purple and yellow. The bright colors are not actually the flowers of the plant, but its leaves. The flowers are the yellow clustered buds in the center. The leaves take on the bright colors in response to the plant forming those small flowers.

When purchasing a poinsettia at the store, select a plant with closed buds. Avoid plants with yellowed or wilted leaves. Ideally, the plants will have dark green foliage that covers up the top of the pot beneath the colored leaves.

To prolong the life of a poinsettia, remove any plastic wrapping and place it in an area of the house that will not receive hot or cold drafts. Keep it away from front doors and fireplaces. If you put it in front of a window, make sure none of the leaves touch the cold glass.

Watering too much or too little is typically the biggest issue. Water the plant often to keep the soil moist but not to the point where it’s soggy. Once the leaves wilt significantly, the plant will be tough to save. It will need plenty of natural light and prefers temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not necessary to apply a fertilizer while the plant is in bloom, but make an application of an all-purpose fertilizer once a month after the holidays.

Foliar diseases, such as gray mold, mildews and leaf scabs, could cause an early loss of these festive plants. Remove any leaves that are scabby or mildewed in appearance.

Avoid wetting the foliage when watering the plant, as well as crowding multiple plants together so the foliage is touching. Space the plants out, so there is adequate airflow between them. Some may go as far as to apply a preventative all-purpose fungicide to the soil as a drench or spray to the leaves.

Most insect pests could be removed with soapy water; however, if you suspect whiteflies, remove and dispose of the plant to reduce chances of an infestation.

Many poinsettias will outlast the will to keep them. To get a poinsettia to re-bloom next year, alter its day lengths. It will need no more than 10 hours of light per day beginning around Oct. 1. Place the plant in a darkened closet or room that receives no light at any time from about 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. This process will need to be repeated for eight to 10 weeks to get the plant to bloom again.

Today, poinsettias are the best-selling potted plants in the United States and Canada, most sold within a six-week period.

I think to say the Aztecs were onto something would be an understatement.

Happy gardening!

~Sidney Hancock is farm manager at New Water Farms in Dadeville.