Despite their limited, two-month run on retailers’ shelves each year, poinsettias are the best-selling potted plant in the United States.
Growers sold more than 34.6 million plants in 2014 alone with 2015 being an even more productive growing and selling year.
Called cuetlaxochitl by Native Americans, the woody shrub to small tree is native to the tropical areas of southern Mexico and Central America.
The poinsettia also has a long history of cultivation. Starting with the Aztecs in Mexico, they made a reddish dye from the bracts and a medicinal preparation from the latex. In the 17th century, Franciscan priests used the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre Nativity procession. Since the plant flowered naturally in the Christmas season, it became linked with the holiday.
A Charleston, S.C., native, Joel Roberts Poinsett introduced the poinsettia to the United States in 1825. The doctor, soldier and amateur botanist was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1828 when he sent the poinsettia clippings to gardener friends. The plant’s general name is derived from his name, but the botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima.
Despite all of these facts, many myths surround the plant. One is they are poisonous. They are not!
Certainly, the leaves and bract don’t taste good. And eating them might cause a stomachache and in rare cases, vomiting. However, a review of established poison control centers and published sources will document poinsettias are not poisonous.
The plant does have one potential issue — the latex. Besides being messy, some people might be sensitive to it, especially those with a latex allergy. But most people will have no reaction.
After reading this, you still want one for Christmas, then here is how to care for the red-flowering plant from Paul Thomas, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Inspect the plant to ensure it has strong, sturdy stems and dense foliage all the way down its stems.
See if its bracts (colored leaves) have no blemishes and its small yellow flowers have barely opened.
Remove the plant from its pot to inspect the roots. If it has a few roots or lots of dark brown roots, don’t buy it. Healthy poinsettias have tan and white roots.
Poinsettias prefer warm temperatures and full sun, but can spend a few weeks on a fireplace hearth or in the shade of a Christmas tree.
“They’ll last about three weeks in fairly dark places,” Thomas said.
Remove the foil wrap, which can trap water in the pot.
Don’t overwater or let them sit in water-filled saucers. They are susceptible to root rot.
Only water when the soil surface feels dry. Add water until it drains out of the bottom.
Don’t fertilize it. Fertilizing when it’s dark is the most common cause of rapid death.
CARE AFTER CHRISTMAS
Move poinsettia to a sunny window and apply houseplant fertilizer.
“The bracts may begin to fall off fast,” Thomas said. “This is normal. If they last until March, your poinsettia was very happy where you put it.”
In April, cut it back to 10 inches or until four to six nodes of the stem are above the soil.
“At this point, the poinsettia can be grown (in Georgia) outdoors in full sun,” Thomas said. “Trim them in June and plant them in 1-gallon pots or large indoor planters.”
Fertilize outdoor poinsettia every week with a basic houseplant fertilizer in spring and summer.
“If watered and fertilized properly, poinsettias will grow quite large, as high and wide as 5 feet,” Thomas said.
To force a repotted poinsettia to bloom, cover the plant after 6 p.m. in late September and uncover it at 7 a.m. Do this until early November. This process will trigger the poinsettia to make new, colorful bracts and flowers just in time for the holidays.
Robin Lynn Friedman is the Master Gardener coordinator for the Hall County Extension Office. She can be reached at email@example.com or 770-535-8293.