MANHATTAN, Kan. — The poinsettia can be found everywhere right now — florists, nurseries, grocery stores, large-scale retailers, even hardware stores. As common as they are, you might wonder how to choose plants with confidence and care for them so they won’t droop before Santa drops down the chimney.
The poinsettia is probably the most familiar form of a specialized leaf known as a bract. The bracts are bright red, and they surround the very small flowers, which are usually yellow. When shopping for a poinsettia, K-State Research and Extension horticulturist Ward Upham suggests looking for the brightest yellow flowers, as those tend to be fresher.
“Make sure that the green leaves are intact and straight, not drooping over. The bracts should be brightly colored. Check the undersides of the leaves for insects. The soil in the pot should be moist, but not waterlogged.”
Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to cold temperatures. Transporting the plant from the retailer to your home really is a do-or-die mission.
“Any temperature below 50° F for any length of time could damage the plant. Florists will often have a plastic sleeve over them — if you buy one from another retailer, it’s not a bad idea to put a bag over it. And then go from the store to your vehicle, and from your vehicle into the house.”
Place the plant where it can receive plenty of bright, indirect light. Avoid drafts — cold drafts, warm drafts, all of them. “A place near an outside door is just as bad as a place near an air vent,” Upham said.
Poinsettias prefer temperatures above 60° F, which is, of course, what most people prefer during the winter, too. Perhaps the most challenging tightrope to walk in terms of poinsettia care is water.
“They are sensitive to either over- or under-watering,” said Upham. “Too little water can lead to wilt, which can progress to leaf loss and possibly even some bract loss. Too much water can cause root rot, and that’s just as bad.”
To avoid watering too soon, stick your finger down into the soil, about half an inch; if the soil is moist, it’s fine. Dry soil means the plant needs water, and it needs to be saturated.
“When you do water, pour on enough so that you see water draining out of the bottom of the pot,” Upham said. “If you have a tray or saucer underneath, discard any water that collects there.”
“Many poinsettias are sold with decorative foil surrounding the pot. You’ll need to make a hole in the bottom of that foil so that that water can flow into the saucer or tray.”
Following these instructions, your poinsettia should last several weeks. While it is possible to keep a poinsettia going from year to year, Upham warns that the blooming process is very challenging, even for the most experienced plant enthusiast.
“Assuming your poinsettia survives the summer outdoors, the real work begins in September. Poinsettias need 12 hours of absolute darkness, every night, for about six or seven weeks. That means putting the plant in a closet, and covering it with a cardboard box with all the seams taped over.”
“Because of that, most people just toss them out in January or February, and buy another one next year.”
Sidebar: Are Poinsettias Really Poisonous?
It’s a decades-old notion that the poinsettia, the popular plant seen everywhere during the holiday season, is dangerously toxic. It’s common to hear warnings that the poinsettia should be kept away from children and pets.
“A lot of people think poinsettias are poisonous because they belong to the genus Euphorbia and a lot of other members of that genus are toxic,” said K-State Research and Extension horticulturist Ward Upham.
The source of this urban legend is frequently attributed to the 1919 death of a two-year-old child in Hawaii. The cause of death was mistakenly attributed to a poinsettia leaf.
“It’s been estimated that a 50 lb. child would have to consume more than 500 leaves for any real side effects or toxicity to set in,” Upham said. “As far as pets go, about all they would have is some nausea.”
“Besides,” Ward concluded, “they taste horribly bitter. No amount of salad dressing can fix that.”
Did You Know?
While the plant has been around for hundreds of years, the modern poinsettia industry began in the early 19th century when the United States ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, brought some of the plants up from Mexico. “He brought some cuttings back and grew them in his greenhouse in South Carolina,” said K-State Research and Extension horticulturist Ward Upham, “and then shared them with all of his friends and some businesses as well, and that’s what got the whole thing started.”