Christmas Poinsettias: their history and care

T’is the season to be jolly and deck the halls with vibrantly colored seasonal plants to greet the coming holidays. Although a tropical plant, the most popular, best- selling holiday plant is the Poinsettia. Sales exceed 35 million plants yearly and contribute more than a quarter billion dollars to the US economy. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows more than 70% of plants sold in the US and 50% of those sold worldwide. North Carolina followed by Texas, Florida, and Ohio are the next leading producers.

Poinsettias became associated with Christmas in their native Central America and Mexico. Because plants bloom in December, Aztecs used the red blooms for centuries to decorate their churches at Christmas time and named it “Flower of the Holy Night.” They also believed that the shape of the central flowers symbolized the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus.

The Poinsettia is named after Joel Robert Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, who introduced plants to the US in 1828. Mr. Poinsett was also an amateur botanist who became interested in these unusual plants and sent some back to hisGreenville, South Carolina, plantation to be raised in his greenhouse. As Poinsett began sharing his plants with friends and botanical gardens, the plant’s popularity grew; their commercial potential also became evident.

During the first half of the twentieth century, several universities and commercial horticulture firms started breeding programs to improve varieties and select for desirable characteristics; included were new colors and longer-lasting blooms. There are now more than 100 varieties with red remaining as the best-selling color. Other colors available include shades of red, pink,salmon, white, gold, green, and speckled, or multicolored varieties. Sizes range from mini plants to large specimen trees.

Poinsettia plants consist of clusters of small, yellow, central flowers called cyathia. Often mistaken for the Poinsettia’s flowers, the leaves that turn red or other colors surrounding the cyathia are bracts, and the plant’s green foliage is below the bracts. In its native Mexico and Central America, a plant may grow to 6 to 12 feet, and blooms yearly in winter. In the US, plants grow outdoors into large shrubs or small trees in temperate coastal areas such as southern California and in other areas located in USDA plant hardiness zones 9-11 (Wake Forest is in USDA zone 7b). In colder climates, Poinsettias are indoor plants during winter months, but may be planted outdoors in spring.

Shopping for Poinsettias

Look for plants with the following characteristics:

1. Dark green, dense, and plentiful foliage; avoid plants with yellow, greenish white, or sagging leaves.

2. Tightly-clustered, unopened central flowers (cyathia); if these are open, falling, or shedding pollen, the plant is not fresh.

3. The bracts should be brightly colored; if partially green, your plant will lose color quickly.

4. As with any plant, make sure your Poinsettia is free from insects and diseases.

Caring for Plants

Poinsettias are tropical plants that do not tolerate low temperatures. Therefore, do not leave them in cars while shopping or in garages on cold days (below 50 degrees). Remove plants from foil or plastic sleeves; check the pot it comes in for drainage holes. If the pot has none, transfer the plant to a new pot with holes. If you return it to the foil, cut holes in the foil for drainage to avoid letting the plant sit in water.

1. Temperature –Consistent temperatures are important. Keep temperatures between 65-70 degrees during the day, and evening temperatures may be slightly cooler (55-60 degrees). However, avoid temperatures below 50 degrees, drafts, and allowingleaves to touch cold windows (they will drop off).

2. Light-Plants need bright, natural light in a sunny window that receives morning sun for about 5 hours and shade during the hotter part of the day.

3. Water-Moisture is also critical for healthy plants. When the soil surface feels dry, thoroughly water until excess water drainsout through the drainage holes. Prevent root damage by using gravel at the bottom of the pot or discarding excess water if the plant is placed in a saucer. Humidifiers or plant misters help plants remain hydrated in dry homes. Do not let the plant dry out, but do not over water.

4. Fertilizer-Unnecessary when plants are in bloom.

At the end of the season, new plants may be started by cutting healthy stems from your plant, removing lower leaves, and using rooting hormone to stimulate new growth. These cuttings can be placed in potting soil, watered, fertilized, and placed in a sunny location to generate new plants. Planted outdoors in late spring, these new plants will grow to 2 to 3 feet until the fall.

The original plant can be saved and forced to re-bloom next year. However, the process to force re-blooming is tedious; throughout the year, monthly care procedures are involved including placing plants, after periods of light exposure, incomplete darkness from October 1 to Thanksgiving. Becausethe process is often unsuccessful, most people simply discard the plant and buy a new one next season.

Note 1: Although plants are not poisonous to humans or pets, they are not edible. Eating stems or leaves may cause mild gastrointestinal issues (vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ache). However, people with latex allergies may have a reaction after touching the leaves and require medical help.

Note 2: The “P” in Poinsettia is always capitalized, because the plant is named after Joel Poinsett.

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