Poinsettia History, Selection, and Care

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When you think about the holiday season, you may associate it with poinsettia plants. The cultivation of the poinsettia started with the Aztecs in Mexico and was originally called cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-she). In 1825, it was officially introduced to the United States by Joel Poinsett who was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. As you can see, the name poinsettia was derived from his name. The botanical name for the poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima and is part of the Euphorbiaceae (spurge) family. The genus name honors Euphorbus, who was a physician to the King of Mauretania. The species name translates to “beautiful” or “pretty. In 1906, poinsettias were being grown as cut flowers by Albert Ecke in Hollywood but later after moving to Encinitas, CA he began focusing on field production of mother plants. Today, they are grown commercially in all 50 states with North Carolina being a top producing state. You may think of Poinsettias only being red but there are over 100 varieties blooming in shades of red, pink, white yellow, purple, and multicolored. Annually on December 12th, National Poinsettia Day is celebrated to honor the fathers of the poinsettia industry, Albert and Paul Ecke and also marking the remembrance of Joel Poinsett, the man responsible for bringing the beautiful holiday plant to the United States.

Pink Poinsettia

Pink Poinsettia

When selecting the right poinsettia for you, select plants that have brightly colored bracts and dark green foliage that covers most of the stem. You want to avoid plants that have dropped leaves, wilted, or have faded, torn, or discolored bracts. A bract is a modified true leaf with a flower or cluster of flowers in its axil. Bracts on poinsettias are the colored leaves and are not the plant’s flowers. The true flowers or cyathia are the small, round, yellow or orange buds located in the center of the bracts. The freshness of your poinsettia plant is measured by the presence or absence of true flowers. As the plant begins to age, the cyathia will drop. The retention of the cyathia in newer cultivars has been improved, which may limit determining the age.

Want your poinsettia to last throughout the holiday season and longer? Make sure to place your plant in a well-lighted location that provides as much sun as possible during the day. Keep your plant in an area that stays between 55 to 75 degrees. You want to keep your plant evenly moist, so never completely dry or sitting in standing water. The perfect time to water is when you notice the surface of the soil dry and the plant feels light when you lift it. A great watering technique is to first take the plant out of the decorative sleeve, place it in a sink and add water until it begins to drip out of the bottom of the pot. Once the plant has drained out all of the extra water, you can then place it back into its decorative sleeve. There is little need to fertilize your poinsettia plant, as it should be supplied with enough nutrients in the soil to be happy and healthy for 30 days. Do not fear, poinsettias are not poisonous as that is just an urban legend that dates back to the 1920s. However, someone with sensitive skin that comes in contact with the white sap produced in all parts of the plant may develop a slight rash.

Poinsettias are a deciduous to semi-evergreen shrub that is typically grown as a potted plant and rarely exceeds 2 to 3 feet. In its natural habitat, the plant can grow up to ten feet high. After the holiday season, it is possible to keep your plant healthy from year-to-year for those with green thumbs. You want to continue to keep your plant in a warm and sunny area. Once the flowers begin to fade, proceed with cutting them off and adding fertilizer. Select a pelleted slow release fertilizer to add to the soil or opt to fertilize your plant twice a month with a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle Grow, fish emulsion, etc. In the spring, when all threat of frost has passed, place your poinsettia outside in a partially shaded location until fall. During the summer months, pinch the tips to encourage bushier growth. To encourage your plant to bloom for the next holiday season, make sure to bring it back inside by the end of September. Once inside, provide your plant with a bright and sunny location during the day with at least 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness every night. It is important to provide your plant with long periods of darkness as it will initiate flowering. After 9 to 11 weeks of long night treatment, your poinsettia should begin blooming for the holiday.

Happy Holiday’s and enjoy your poinsettia!!

Our office is an equal opportunity provider, so if you have any questions related to your poinsettia or other horticulture needs, please contact Kellee Payne at kellee_payne@ncsu.edu or 336-849-7908.

As seen in the Yadkin Ripple.