In the Dirt by Ray Greenstreet

Poinsettias—Our Iconic Symbol of the Christmas Holidays

(All photos courtesy of Greenstreet Gardens)

By Ray Greenstreet

Alexandria, VA – Poinsettia are one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas, but did you know they’ve only been part of American Christmas traditions since the 1830s? Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico, where they grow into trees as tall as 16 feet, blooming in December and coloring the hills a brilliant shade of red. They were brought to the U.S. by Joel Roberts Poinsett (founder of the Smithsonian Institution) in 1828, and he soon started propagating them as houseplants and gifting them to friends.

Over the years, poinsettias have been adapted and hybridized to deliver the stunning mix of colors available today. Poinsettias usually hit local stores and garden centers around Thanksgiving and are a fantastic way to mark the start of the holiday season.

Before you head out to find your first poinsettia of the year, here are a few tips to help you pick the best one.

How to Choose a Perfect Poinsettia

1. Look for dense and dark green foliage. The lower leaves of a healthy plant should be a rich dark green, and the color should extend down to the soil line.

2. Choose a full and balanced poinsettia. A healthy plant should have lush leaves from just above the edge of its pot to the top, and it should look evenly dense from every angle.

3. Check the center buds in the middle of blossoms. Choose ones that are still green and not yet showing pollen. This shows that the plant is still young.

Since they’re tropical plants, poinsettias are sensitive to cold. If exposed to temperatures colder than 50 ̊F, they wilt and will likely die. If possible, pick yours up on a warm day above 50 ̊F. If you must get them when it’s below freezing, protect them well. A nursery will pack them up in protective plastic, but it’s not a bad idea to bring a thin blanket to wrap around them while transporting them to your car and into your house.

Whatever you do, don’t leave poinsettias sitting in the car while you finish other shopping. Our vehicles cool down fast in the winter. Even an extra blanket will not protect them from the chill.

While they’re sensitive to frost, poinsettias are otherwise easy to care for. The most crucial care tip to know is that they do not tolerate overwatering. They need good drainage to flourish. Here are a few more tips to help your poinsettia last all season long:

1. The best spot for a poinsettia is somewhere with at least six hours of bright light, with even temperatures of 65-70 ̊F during the day, down to 60 ̊F at night.

2. Don’t leave your poinsettia in the foil. The foil may be pretty, but leaving it to sit in the foil will likely cause root rot. If you really want to keep the plant in the decorative packaging, poke several holes in the bottom of the foil and set it on a saucer so it can drain well.

3. Water your poinsettia only when the soil is dry 1/2 to 1 inch under the surface or when the pot starts to feel light when you pick it up. Make sure you check the soil and weight daily— poinsettias tend to dry out quickly at this time of year due to dry indoor air.

4. The best way to water your poinsettia is to set it in a couple of inches of water in the sink. Let it soak up as much water as it needs, and then let it drain for half an hour before returning to its decorative pot.

Are Poinsettias Poisonous?

No, poinsettias are not poisonous to pets or humans. If your cat or dog eats a few leaves, they might get a sick tummy. If they eat all the leaves off your plant, you will want to call your vet. However, a few nibbles won’t hurt them. Likewise, kids are safe. Eating a few leaves may cause some tummy upset, but fortunately, a 50-pound child would need to eat approximately 500 poinsettia leaves before it would cause any actual harm.

With a bit of care and a bright, warm location, your poinsettia should last at least 6-8 weeks, plenty of time to get through to the end of the year.

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