Poinsettias: Selection, Care & Uses

No flower says Christmas like the beautiful Poinsettia.  I was amazed to learn that the Poinsettia is the most popular potted plant by far in the U.S. and Canada. But here are a few tips in buying the perfect Poinsettia to adorn your Christmas season.

Poinsettia, Sparkling Punch
Poinsettia ‘Sparkling Punch’
The newer white Poinsettias are really beautiful
The newer white Poinsettias are really beautiful

Selecting a Healthy Poinsettia

  1. Before Care-Have you ever brought home a Poinsettia and all the leaves drop off? More than likely, the Poinsettia was in a draughty location in a store at the entrance where people are coming in and out, exposing this tropical, warmth- loving plant to cold drafts. Move on to another store that takes better care of their plants. And make sure when you buy it, that the nursery gives you a brown or plastic sleeve to carry it to your car. Any burst of cold air can damage a Poinsettia very quickly.
  2. Soil– Stick your finger into the soil to check to  check if it is dripping wet or bone dry. If the Poinsettia is wrapped in a foil wrapper, more than likely it has been sitting in water which this plant particularly hates. The soil should be moist, but not soggy.
  3. Look for intact bracts and dark green leaves – The yellow bracts are at the center of the plant and look like little yellow buds between the colored bracts or actual flowers. These should look fresh and tight. Foliage should be dark green and not falling off.

    When you buy a Poinsettia, the store should wrap it up well against any blasts of cold winter air

 

The yellow center should look tight

 

Lime Green is a new color in Poinsettias

Here are some other interesting tidbits of the history of the Poinsettia:

History & Legends

  • The Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “very beautiful”
  • The showy leaves or petals, called “bracts”, are not the actual flower. The flowers of the poinsettia are in the center of the bracts and are inconspicuous and contain a sweetly fragrant nectar
The center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
The center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
  • The cultivation of Poinsettias originated with the Aztecs hundreds of years ago in Mexico.  Montezuma, the last Aztec king, would have Poinsettias brought into the city, which is now known as Mexico City, by caravans because he liked them so much
  • Aztecs used the bracts, the colored portion, as a dye, and the sap as a medicinal to control fevers
  • Joel Poinsett, a botanist and the first U.S. minister to Mexico in 1825, found the plant blooming on the side of the road, which the native people regarded as a weed, took cuttings, and sent some plants to his home in South Carolina
  • Poinsett shared his finds with other plant enthusiasts and that is how the poinsettia came to the United States
Poinsettia Valentine
Poinsettia ‘Valentine’, a double ruffled flower
  • The Ecke family grew Poinsettias in southern California in the 1920’s, primarily as a cut flower and landscape plant and remain to this day, the largest producer of Poinsettias in the US
  •  Grown as field grown potted plants for the cut flower trade, Poinsettias were shipped all over the country by train. Poinsettias really gained wide-spread recognition through media promotions on The Tonight Show and The Bob Hope Christmas Specials. This promotion ensured that Poinsettias were as much a part of the holiday tradition as Christmas evergreen trees
  • When the flowers or stems are cut, they ooze a milky sap that can cause people with latex sensitivities to have an allergic reaction.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Poinsettias are not poisonous. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.
  • Red is the most popular color, and the variety called “Prestige Red” tops the popularity list
  • Poinsettias are now the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada!
Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas
Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas at Longwood Gardens

Color Palette

Breeding of the Poinsettia began with the goal of improving cultivars that would retain their leaves and bracts for a longer period. The breeding also created stronger stems, multiple branching, earlier blooming, and the palette of colors that we recognize today. These modern cultivars last longer, bloom earlier, and are available in a vast array of colors from red to white, pink to burgundy, and with many variations including doubling of flowers and flecks of color on contrasting backgrounds.

Purple is very popular, but is sprayed on
Purple is very popular, but is sprayed on

Spraying of blues and purples and glitter is done to jazz up the color spectrum. It isn’t my favorite way to treat these plants, but recently at a local nursery, I heard people swoon over the purple Poinsettias!

Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket
Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket

 

Jingle Bells Poinsettia-the actual flower is in the center of the bracts
‘Jingle Bells’ Poinsettia is one of the top selling Poinsettias
Visions of Grandeur Poinsettia with Orchids
‘Visions of Grandeur’ Poinsettia with Orchids at Longwood Gardens

 

Sleeved poinsettias
Sleeved Poinsettias

Care-5 Tips to Keep Poinsettias in Tip Top Shape Until April

Yes, you read that right-until April! The newer varieties will last until April, namely the Princettia varieties. These varieties branch more readily which produces more flowers, and are shorter- not so top heavy as older varieties. I brought home one of these pastel pink ones from my local nursery, Valley View Farms, as it was so different looking from the old mammoth flowered Poinsettias.

Princettia Poinsettia sign at Valley View Farms
Princettia Poinsettia sign at Valley View Farms
Princettia Poinsettias branch more and produce more flowers
Princettia Poinsettias branch more which produces more flowers
  • Keep in indirect, natural daylight
  • Water when soil is dry to the touch-overwatering is the biggest cause of leaf drop and death 
  • Keep in temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees
  • Make sure the pot drains, removing the foil wrapper if necessary
  • Fertilization is not necessary
A white double poinsettia
A white double poinsettia

Reflowering-Tough But Why Bother? 

It is possible to get your poinsettia to “rebloom” next year, but you need to follow strict requirements for light, temperature, and fertilization. Following all these rules is way too much trouble for me, so I consider this plant a “throwaway”. Poinsettias are very inexpensive and I leave the growing of them to experts who have the right equipment to make this happen. If you really want to get your Poinsettia to bloom again, go to Southern Living for detailed instructions.

Peach Poinsettia
Peach Poinsettia
Monet Poinsettia
‘Monet’ Poinsettia

Poisonous??

Contrary to popular opinion, Poinsettias are not poisonous, but neither are they edible. There was a study done that determined that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500 leaves to get really sick! And the leaves supposedly taste awful. The Poinsettia plant is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family of plants, which includes the rubber tree, where natural latex comes from. So, If you are allergic to latex, and ingest this plant, you may have some degree of discomfort, but not fatal. Likewise, if you handle the plant, you could develop a rash. Poinsettias are not harmful to pets either, unless they ingest leaves or bracts in very large quantities. Cats who chew on the leaves may salivate and can vomit if the leaves are swallowed, but it will not kill them.

Princettia Poinsettias

Decorating/Arranging With Poinsettias

As a cut flower, Poinsettias win rave points with their wide range of colors and long vase life. Rather than using Poinsettias as a stand alone,  try grouping them together for bigger impact. I also like to place Poinsettias in baskets along with other plants, pods, and cones, to add interest.

These Poinsettias were inserted into an oasis ring for a centerpiece
Placing a candle in the center, you have an instant centerpiece
Decorating with Poinsettias
Decorating with Poinsettias
Use your poinsettias in groups
Group your Poinsettias for bigger impact

As cut flowers, Poinsettias are great, but you rarely see them used this way. The plants are so inexpensive, that I don’t feel guilty buying one, and cutting the flowers off for arrangements. You can get an entirely different look by using them as cut flowers and they last a long time in a vase, up to two weeks! When you cut the flower, singe the end with a match or propane torch to stop the milky sap from running out. An alternative is to dip the cut end into boiling water and then plunging the stem into cold water.

Poinsettias used as a cut flower
Poinsettias used as a cut flower

Try floating them in bowls as a centerpiece or inserting them into water tubes and scattering them in wreaths or garlands.

Floating Poinsettia flowers last for weeks
Arrange a potted Poinsettia in a basket with other plants for a gift basket

3 Replies to “Poinsettias: Selection, Care & Uses”

  1. I repot my Poinsettia and grow it outside once the danger of frost is past. It makes a beautiful green patio plant.

  2. I also do what Jane does as they make a good filler. Even if all the leaves have fallen off, it doesn’t take long for new ones to appear.
    A friend lost her brother to Covid today and I am going to try to find a beautiful white poinsettia plant for her. Guess a nursery is my best bet…thanks for all the good information.

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