What is Christmas Without a Poinsettia?

Photo by Jackie Bantle. Red, white, pink and 'Red Glitter' poinsettias.

by Jackie Bantle

Many special occasions have special flowers or plants associated with them.  The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has been linked with Christmas celebrations in North America for the past century. 

The poinsettia occurs naturally in northwest areas of Mexico and can be found growing wild in deciduous tropical forests along the western coast of Central America, as far south as Guatemala.   The ‘blooming red flower’ is not a true flower but rather a collection of colored bracts or modified leaves.  The bracts change from green to red (or white, pink or even orange) when the consecutive daylight hours each day are less than 12.   The actual flowers of the poinsettia are the small yellow structures in the center of the leaf bracts at the growing point of the plant. 

The poinsettia was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. foreign minister to Mexico.  On his return home to South Carolina in 1829, he brought back cuttings of the native poinsettias to grow in his greenhouse.  At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Ecke started field cultivation of poinsettias near Los Angeles, California, selling dormant plants to his customers.  In 1919 Albert’s son, Paul Ecke Sr., took over the farm and started selling them as cut flowers at roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.  By 1963, Paul Ecke Jr. had joined his father in the poinsettia business and developed the first commercial quality poinsettia cultivars grown in pots. Paul Ecke Sr. became known as “The Poinsettia King”.

When selecting your poinsettia, choose a healthy plant with a sturdy branches.  Ensure that the true yellow flowers are present.  Avoid purchasing poinsettias that are displayed in plastic or paper sleeves around the plant as plants that have been sleeved too long lose their leaves prematurely. 

Poinsettias were traditionally red in color but with breeding efforts; white, pink, red and white speckled and peach colors are common.  This year I even noticed white poinsettias that had a blue and purple tinged bracts:  they were spray painted.  Transporting poinsettias home in the winter can be challenging.  Wrap the poinsettia in a paper or plastic sleeve surrounded by newspaper and place it in an inflated closed plastic bag.  The extra air helps insulate it.  Take it home in a warm vehicle.  Once home, remove the plastic and paper wrapping as soon as possible.  Place your poinsettia in an area with bright, filtered light – not direct sunlight.  Avoid exposing it to warm or cold drafts.  Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 19-22°C. 

Water poinsettias sparingly but thoroughly once the top 1-2 cm of the media is dry.   Do not allow them to completely dry out, but never let them sit in water.  Allow the excess water to drain from the pot.  If you decide to keep your poinsettia as a house plant, fertilize it once a month with a soluble fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in phosphorous.  The red bracts will eventually fall off and replaced by green colored bracts as the days become longer.  

To initiate colored bracts on your houseplant poinsettia for the next Christmas season, place it in a dark location for a minimum of 12 hours each day beginning in September.  This 12 hour ‘dark period’ must be completely uninterrupted by light.  By early November, new colored bracts will start appearing.

Some people avoid purchasing poinsettias because they are said to be poisonous.  While the plant sap can be irritating to people and pets, it is not poisonous.  Studies have shown that a 20 kg dog or child would have to eat between 500-600 bracts or drink a 2kg of the sap before it would be toxic.  The sap is very bitter so if a pet or child started to eat the plant, the bitter taste would turn them away from further consumption.  

Whether it is the traditional red poinsettia or one of the newer pink, peach or speckled types, with proper care you’ll enjoy your poinsettia throughout the Christmas season and beyond.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events.