Landscape Spotlight: Poinsettia, ‘Euphorbia pulcherrima’

Posted December 27, 2018 in Plant and Tree

We know them well, and at this time of year, we actively seek them out and give them as much attention as we can to keep them looking lush and beautiful.  What is the holiday season without a few poinsettias littered about the house or gifting them to your in-laws when visiting for dinner?  Being the one of the most important floriculture crops in the United States, how much do we really know about their history and how to keep them alive and well through our month-long list of events and get togethers?

Believe it or not, this festive flower is a Central American native that predominately flourishes in southern Mexico!  It’s hard to believe that the ruby-red plant we associate with Santa and snow hails from a place with tropical weather, but poinsettias were not always synonymous with the holly-jolly holiday.

Growing in the tropical highlands, ancient Aztecs would find this plant in full-bloom during their very short days of winter.  Not using this plant for decoration or ceremony its uses were practical in nature, extracting dye for cosmetics and using its milky white sap to treat ailments and fevers.  This seems a little shocking, since we are led to believe that the poinsettia plant is poisonous to animals and humans, but research has found that that is a myth!

As rumor has it, back in 1919 an army officer’s child ingested a leaf of the poinsettia plant and passed away soon after, giving this plant its infamous bad rap.  Poinsettia producers have been trying to bust this myth ever since but felt that getting scientific researchers involved might help their case.  Enter the researchers at Ohio University and the American Medical Association.  Conducting extensive tests on every inch of the plant produced non-toxic results, and the most harm can take form in a mild skin rash from the sap on those with sensitive skin.  While we don’t promote letting your kids or cats having an evening nibble, the immediate cause for alarm isn’t as dire.

So if this plant is a native of Mexico, how did it end up in the United States anyway?  Well, this plant certainly could have remained a regional plant if it wasn’t for Joel Roberts Poinsett.  Being appointed as the first US Ambassador to Mexico by President Madison, Poinsett had a wild lust for botany.  Being introduced to the “Cuetlaxochitl”, as the plant was named when he was first introduced to it, Poinsett was enamored with its brilliant red blooms and immediately sent some home so he could begin his own propagation with hopes to make it well-known in the U.S.  To make the plant more easily accepted, the name was changed to Poinsettia, as he was the person to introduce it to our country.  Fun fact: Poinsett also founded the institution known today as the Smithsonian!

Today, this plant is known as the Christmas or holiday poinsettia, because it can be found naturally blooming for only that short period of time around Christmas in Mexico.  That’s it, super simple explanation!  Production and distribution have consistently grown since the 1800s making the poinsettia a huge market with a valuation of $325 million in 1997.  Whether your personal favorite poinsettia is pink, white or red, it is recorded as the most frequently sold and delivered Christmas floral in the United States during the holiday season.

Some people consider poinsettias hard to care for, but it just takes a little understanding to keep them in tip-top shape for the holiday.  Here are a few key tips and suggestions to help your poinsettias looking beautiful for the season:

  • Being native to tropical climates, these plants are highly sensitive to our cooler temperatures.  Even a cold, yet quick trip from the nursery to your home may damage the plant.  Protecting your plant on the way home with an insulated sleeve or wrap will help guard when in transit to its final destination.
  • Try to place your plant in a place where it will receive maximum sunlight; at least 3-4 hours of direct sunlight will keep them happy.
  • This plant doesn’t like a lot of water but can’t be left dry for too long!  Water whenever the soil feels a little dry, but don’t let it sit in a pool!  Standing water at its base can lead to root rot and be fatal to the plant.  A small sip of water every other day or a good soak once every week should do the trick, but make sure to feel the soil before you give it another drink!
  • Being temperamental, make sure your poinsettias are kept in a warm and draft-free location.  Daytime temperatures of about 68°/higher with nighttime temperatures of 60-65° are ideal.
  • Misting its leaves regularly is a nice touch to keep the humidity just right.

For the ambitious gardener that doesn’t mind spending the time and effort, instead of disposing of your poinsettias in the new year, try to keep it as a houseplant until next Christmas!  Continue water on its normal schedule until late spring, cut the plant back to about 4-6” after flowering and repot in fresh soil.  After the danger of frost is gone in the spring, you can take your poinsettias outdoors where they can enjoy dappled sunlight to part shade.  If you keep the plants moist, fertilize regularly and pinch off new tips until around mid-August, you should have a fighting chance at a winter bloom.

Once nighttime temperatures dip around 60°, it’s time to bring your plant inside.  Provide bright light daily and complete darkness at night until mid-November or early December.  At this point, you should see you plant start to regain some holiday color.  The 8-11 hours of light mixed with up to 16 hours of uninterrupted darkness closely emulates the “short days” it needs to initiate flowering.  While it’s true that buying new poinsettias every year is a lot easier, for those who love a challenge, this is certainly one…good luck!

Being that this is our last blog entry of 2018, we would like to take a minute to say thank you to all those who make MasterPLAN Outdoor Living such a success all year long.  We absolutely love what we do, and it wouldn’t be possible without our amazing clients, skilled craftsmen and the people who follow our blog and social media that always have kind words to say.  We are humbled and honored to serve the Poconos, Lehigh Valley through the Main Line of Philadelphia and western New Jersey.  We wish the best to you all and your families this holiday season; we hope that 2019 brings joy, love and prosperity your way!  Happy holidays from everyone here at MasterPLAN Outdoor Living!

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