In The Dirt by Ray Greenstreet
How Much Do You Know About the Poinsettia?
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without poinsettias. This colorful plant decorates homes, businesses and churches across the country…and beyond. The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a Mexican native. It was first introduced to the United States back in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, and the poinsettia is named for him.
In its native habitat, the poinsettia is a shrub or small tree. Those colorful “petals” that define the poinsettia aren’t actually petals, but bracts, or leaves. The actual flowers – called cyathia – of the poinsettia are small and yellow, and are in the center of each leaf bunch.
The colors of the bracts are created through a process called photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. Any light during these nights – from passing headlights, street lights or even a TV – will effect bract production. However, during the day, poinsettias need abundant light to develop the brightest colors.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in Mexico, sometime in the 16th-century. There the legend says that a young girl, Pepita, was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. She was told by an angel to gather a bunch of “weeds” growing wild along footpaths, and place them on the church altar as her offering. Those “weeds” were wild poinsettias. The poinsettia is known in Mexico and Guatemala as the Flor de Noche Buena, meaning Christmas Eve Flower.
Today there are more than 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettias, and their colors include the traditional red but also pink, white, orange and marbled varieties. This holiday flower has become so popular in the United States that December 12 is recognized as National Poinsettia Day.
Caring For Your Poinsettia
- Choose a plant with dark, green foliage.
- When transporting your poinsettia on chilly winter days, be sure the poinsettia is protected by a plant sleeve (plastic or paper), because even short exposure to low temperatures can damage the plant.
- Remove the sleeve as soon as possible after you’re home, because the petioles (stems of the leaves and bracts) can droop and twist if the plant is left wrapped for too long.
- The poinsettia needs bright light, so place it near a sunny window – or in another well-lit area – but out of direct sun. Poinsettias do not tolerate cold drafts, so don’t place it next to a window where the plant can come in contact with cold air. Too warm and they’ll suffer too, so keep them away from heat vents and fireplaces.
- Check the soil daily and water only when it feels dry. Always water enough to soak the soil to the bottom of the pot. Don’t let the plant sit in water, which will encourage rot. The leaves are a good indicator of your watering: If you don’t water enough, the plant will wilt and drop leaves, and if you water too much the lower leaves will yellow and then drop.
- If you keep your plant for several months, apply a soluble houseplant fertilizer, once or twice a month according to the manufacturers recommendations
Ray Greenstreet is President of Greenstreet Gardens and has been playing in the dirt all his life. If you have a specific question for him please email [email protected] and we will pass it on.