America loves poinsettias. We buy over 75 million of them each Christmas season, spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars in a very short season running from shortly before Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. In those six weeks, we buy more poinsettias than the number two and three plants, orchids, and African violets in an entire year.
It’s easy to see why. Poinsettias bring at least as much color to the Christmas season as the strings of lights that set the nights ablaze. They offer a spectrum of colors: deep crimson, burgundy, scarlet, salmon, hot pink, ivory, cream, white, and lime green. If you don’t mind a little airbrush trickery, you can even buy blue or purple poinsettias, complete with glitter.
Want flash without the ‘cheat?’ Variegated blooms may be just what you’re looking for. You can select speckled pink and salmon, party-color red and ivory, marbled pink and cream, red on white, green on white or just about any other color combination.
The flower ‘petals’ can take on several different shapes as well. They aren’t really petals at all, but specialized leaves called ‘bracts.’ These leaves cluster around the true flowers, insignificant little yellow bulb-like structures some growers call ‘berries.’ Poinsettia leaves typically have a lanceolate, or spearhead shape. Variations display a toothed leaf reminiscent of holly. Newest to the family, ‘Christmas Rose’ forms show off ruffled or crumpled bracts, resembling a rose.
There’s even a size for every location, from dainty single stem, single bloom plants in four-inch pots to bushy twelve-inch pots filled to bursting with three or four multi-bloom poinsettias each. For even more punch, consider a poinsettia hanging basket spilling over with blooms; or maybe an upright tree standard is more to your liking. Poinsettias even serve well in cut flower arrangements.
Poinsettias are daylight sensitive, blooming only when the days grow short and the nights are long, one reason why they’re a Christmas favorite. In their native Mexican forests, they naturally come into bloom in time for Christmas. In greenhouses and homes, they need 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness a day, for at least five days in a row, plus bright light each day to bloom. The slightest bit of stray light during those five nights can completely reset the plants’ internal clock and cancel the flowering sequence. How slight? The stray high beams of a passing car, a nearby lamppost, even a reading lamp switched on for a moment can spell disaster to the blooming process.
Several uninterrupted long nights will trigger the inconspicuous little yellow flowering structures to form at the tips of the plant’s branches. At the same time the surrounding bracts begin changing color, taking on the familiar hues of a poinsettia bloom. Once a poinsettia blooms, day length becomes much less important.
A well-selected poinsettia with young flowers, kept happy and comfortable, will easily remain attractive well into the New Year, and may even keep its bloom until spring. You may be tempted to try to coax your poinsettia into blooming again next year, but if you decide to discard it, don’t feel guilty. Poinsettias have strict requirements for repeat blooming; and most people who do try will only try once, for bragging rights. If treating poinsettias as a disposable flower bothers you, just pretend they’re cut flowers.
Poinsettia success begins with strong, healthy plants. When you select your poinsettia at the store, choose one that is well formed, and has plenty of leaves. You don’t want to be able to see the stems peeking through the leaves. Take notice to the true flowers as well. Choose a poinsettia with very few flowers in each bloom, and avoid plants where the flowers have already split open like cartoon lips, or display hairy fringes.
Keeping your poinsettia happy and beautiful is as simple as remembering temperature, light, and water. Temperature’s importance begins at the store or nursery, when the clerk wraps your new poinsettia in a plastic or paper cone. That cone is your poinsettia’s first line of defense against a frozen death. Poinsettias are thoroughly tropical, and have absolutely no cold tolerance, so be sure to take yours straight home in a warm car. Resist the urge for a ‘quick stop’ at the grocery store. Even walking from the store to the car without protection means instant death for your poinsettias in freezing conditions; they will be dead and dropping leaves by the time you get home.
Once you have brought your poinsettias home safely, choose a bright spot for them, where they will receive indirect sunlight. Position your poinsettias near a window facing the sun. North-facing windows don’t offer enough light to keep a poinsettia happy.
Avoid drafty, gusty spots, and protect your poinsettia’s leaves from cold window glass. The front entry way may seem like the perfect place to display your poinsettia from a decorating standpoint, but one gust from an open window and you won’t show it off for long. In general, poinsettias prefer the same temperature range that we do, and sulk when temperatures drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Over-watering kills more poinsettias than poor lighting and drafts combined. Poinsettias are very susceptible to root rot, so careful watering and good drainage are a must. Never let your poinsettia stand in water. Poinsettias are often sold with a decorative foil wrapper on their pots. Discard that shiny foil pot wrapper as soon as you get your plant home. Yes, the foil is very pretty, but it will also kill your poinsettia. If you simply can’t bear to throw it away, at the very least cut away its bottom panel.
Let your plant’s soil dry out completely before watering it again. Don’t worry about letting it dry out between watering. A dry wilted plant can be rescued far more easily than a waterlogged plant with rotting roots. Learn to feel the weight difference between a dry pot and a freshly watered pot. You’ll be amazed at how much weight difference there is, and how much water potting mix can hold. Water your poinsettia in the sink, letting cool or lukewarm water percolate slowly through the soil until it runs freely from the bottom of the pot.
This Christmas, indulge in an American holiday tradition. Follow these tips to fill your home with the beauty of America’s favorite flower and enjoy the bright cheer of the holidays all winter long.
Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.