The beautiful poinsettia of today has wandered far from its Mexican roots. Today’s plant has been hybridized into a variety of floral shapes and colors: white, red, pink, salmon and plum as well. It is possible to buy double-flowering poinsettias and flowers twisted into whorls of stars. One thing hasn’t changed though. Poinsettias are still in the Euphorbia family, that venerable genus that also houses the Easter favorite, Crown of Thorns, and that means, keep it dry.
The Aztecs cultivated the flower during the 14th to 16th centuries for medicinal use to control fevers and as a dye. Americans noticed the beautiful flowers known by the Aztecs as Cuetlaxochit and by modern Mexicans as Flores de Buena Noche, or flowers of the good night, and renamed them after the American ambassador to Mexico -Joel Robert Poinsett — in the early 19th century. From Mexico they have spread all over the world and are a popular Christmas plant beloved of many nations. Amazingly, the true flowers of the poinsettia are the non-descript yellow things in the center. The astonishing colors of the plant come from modified leaves known as bracts.
Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, (Pulcherrima is Latin for “very beautiful”) are succulent plants that should be planted in a good loamy potting soil and watered with a light hand. The plants should be watered thoroughly when a finger poked an inch into the soil comes out dry. If the pot is very large, use a clean chopstick instead inserted several inches into the ground. The chopstick should come out clean of soil and dry. Another sign that the plant needs watering will be dropping leaves-don’t wait too long or the leaves will drop off entirely.
Find a well-lit place, preferably a little on the cold side. The bracts will last longer if the temperature is a little below the comfortable level for householders. That means if you have a porch or color room where the temperature stays in the low 60’s during the day and mid-50’s at night, you will have a longer lasting plant. The lower temperatures slow the metabolism of the plant and delay the eventual day when those beautiful leaves bite the dust.
Another reason to keep the plant out of the center of the action is that it is toxic to pets and children. While probably not fatal since the leaves taste pretty bad, there’s no point in risking a doctor or vet’s bill.
A couple of sticks of time release fertilizer in the soil or an occasional dose of a high nitrogen fertilizer completes the regime. Go light on the fertilizer too. Feel free to cut the manufacturer’s recommended amounts in half and apply the recommended number of times or better yet make it quarter-strength and apply twice as frequently.
The manufacturer’s recommendations are maximums, not minimums. A houseplant does not require dosages calibrated for professional nurserymen forcing plants in tropical greenhouses for quick sale to the public. Too much fertilizer will severely damage or kill the plant. Never apply fertilizer to an ailing plant or one that is not well-rooted or dormant either. The unused fertilizer will collect like a salt and burn roots.
The poinsettia will make a welcome guest in your home with plain green leaves for many years to come, but re-blooming the plant takes some doing. The Poinsettia is a short day bloomer. That means it needs 12 hours in the dark during the Fall months to produce the bracts. People who are serious about this stick the plant in a closet every evening and expose it to the fullest possible direct or bright indirect light for 12 hours every day starting in the early months of Fall to simulate the naturally short days of Winter that trigger its bloom. If this is too much hassle, you can get a fresh blooming plant for next year for a song. The most important Poinsettia nursery and source of most of what you see in the stores is the Ecke company. Their website appears under sources at the end of this article.
One other thing, if your poinsettia becomes a year round guest, you will notice a time when the plant simply stops growing and begins dropping leaves sometime in the Spring. If this happens, reduce the watering further until the mature leaves drop entirely.
When this happens, prune the stems down several inches to allow new growth to form. Watch for brand new leaves sprouting and slowly resume normal watering. Don’t fertilize until the plant has come completely out of dormancy and is fully leafed. If you have been growing it in direct light, you may wish to switch it to bright indirect light through late Spring and early Fall. If you like this you will also like:
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