Growth in gardening: Picking and caring for poinsettias

Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, and as such, they like warmer climates, a good amount of moisture and lots of light. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Well, here we are, well into December and Christmas is breaking out all over the place. As we see the lights and decoration going up we will also notice that the poinsettia plants are in every store. Well that is not unusual, in fact, this past Tuesday, Dec. 12, was national poinsettia day. The date marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who is credited with introducing the native Mexican plant to the United States. But why is the poinsettia considered the Christmas Plant and how do you care for it? Glad you asked – even if you didn’t.

Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, especially an area of southern Mexico known as ‘Taxco del Alarcon’ where they flower during the winter. The ancient Aztecs called them ‘cuetlaxochitl’. The Aztecs had many uses for them including using the flowers – that are actually special types of leaves known as bracts – to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics and the milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers – today we call that sap latex.

The poinsettia was made widely known because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett – hence the name. He was the first Ambassador from the USA to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Tacxo area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens. Before long everyone wanted one. By the early 1900s they were sold everywhere as potted plants. Soon word spread of an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together, and the plant soon became the traditional Christmas plant.

The old legend says that there was once a poor girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve service. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.

“Pepita,” he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus happy.”

Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small, humble present. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them was sure they had seen a Christmas miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’, and the tradition began. The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are said to be a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ while the white leaves represent his purity.

As the poinsettia makes its annual appearance in stores and garden centers I find my website flooded with annual questions about them. “I see all of these beautiful poinsettia plants at the stores and I really want to get some but every time I do I kill them! Help!” is a typical enquiry.

This year I thought I would cover the “tricks” of poinsettia care and keeping this plant alive as the subject of this week’s article.

Warm Is Important - The very first point I want to make about bringing home these plants is that you must keep them warm. We hope the stores will keep them warm while they have them, but it is equally up to you to keep the plant warm as well. Do not put them in the trunk on the way home either, it could still get too cold. Do not leave them in the car while you do a few more errands, it could still get too cold. You get the idea? Keep them warm and do not allow them to get chilled – this is a common problem with poinsettia care and it leads to leaf drop. Just remember that this is a tropical plant and if it is too cold for you to be outside in a summer T-shirt than it is too cold for the poinsettia as well.

Poinsettia Choice and Leaf Dropping - When you do buy a poinsettia, never chose one of the plants the store leaves in the plastic wrappers with the plastic pulled up around the leaves. As the plants sit in those protective wrappers, the leaves produce ethylene gas and this collects around the leaves. It only takes about 24 hours of this protection and the plant will start dropping leaves and no amount of great poinsettia care on your part will help this. You’ll take the plant home and as you unwrap the poinsettia, it will begin dropping leaves on the spot. Unfortunately, once the plant starts dropping leaves, there is no stopping it. It will drop a few more every day no matter what you do or do not do to the plant. So, save yourself the heartache and pick a plant that has leaves all the way to the soil line and make sure those bottom leaves are big and well connected to the stem.

Poinsettia Flowers - The little yellow ball-like things in the middle of the red leaves are the true poinsettia flower and if they are missing, the plant is old and likely mistreated. If these little flowers are not there or fall off easily, it means the plant is already on the downward slide to the compost pile. Do not buy a poinsettia in this shape.

Lots of Light - Poinsettia love high light levels and the more light you give them, the longer they will last in your home. They have been grown in high-light greenhouses and the shock of moving to your darker home will encourage them to shed leaves. Brighter is better in the poinsettia care world.

Watering - Watering, or the absence of it, kills more poinsettia than any other thing the homeowner does. Try to keep the soil evenly moist. Remember again that this is a tropical plant and it likes soil that is not dry but is also not swampy. There is no hard and fast rule, it all depends on your home humidity, temperature and location for the plant. Some folks use those water stick gizmos to tell them if their plants need water. They’ve never worked well for me but if they work for you, use them. Whatever you do, remember the rule of keeping the soil evenly moist.

Feeding - Nope! You don’t have to feed your poinsettia during the blooming time.

And finally, poinsettias are not poisonous. As members of the Euphorbia family, they do have a milky white sap that is bitter. But you would have to eat several bushels of leaves before you got enough sap to give yourself an upset stomach. So, do not worry if the kids or pets get it on themselves, (it is sticky) or on their mouth; it isn’t going to hurt them.

Enjoy everything this time of year offers, especially poinsettias.

--Joe Urbach is the publisher of and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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