How to care for your poinsettia

Jackie Bantle/SUBMITTED Red poinsettia bracts with yellow flowers.

Jackie Buntle
Saskatchewan Perennial Society
Many special occasions have specific flowers or plants associated with them. Christmas is no exception. The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has been associated with Christmas celebrations in North America for the past 100 years.
The poinsettia occurs naturally in northwestern Mexico and can be found growing wild in deciduous rainforests along the west coast of Central America south of Guatemala. It is not a flower, but a collection of colored bracts and deformed leaves. Bracts change from green to red when the daily sunshine duration is less than 12 hours. A poinsettia’s actual flower is a small yellow structure in the center of the leaf bract at the growing point of the plant.
The poinsettia is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Minister of Foreign Affairs. When he returned to South Carolina in 1829, he brought back native poinsettia cuttings to grow in a greenhouse. At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Ecke began field growing poinsettias near Los Angeles, California, selling the dormant plants to customers. In 1919, Albert’s son, Paul Ecke Sr., took over the farm and began selling it as cut flowers from street stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. By 1963, Paul Ecke Jr. joined his father in the poinsettia business and developed the first commercial quality poinsettia variety grown in pots. Paul Ecke Sr. became known as “The King of Poinsettias”.
When choosing a poinsettia, choose a healthy plant with strong branches. Make sure that true yellow flowers are present. Never buy anything decorated with a paper or plastic sleeve. Because plants with too long sleeves will lose their leaves prematurely.
Bringing poinsettias home in the winter can be difficult. Wrap the poinsettia in a paper or plastic sleeve wrapped in newspaper and place it in an inflated, closed plastic bag. Extra air helps insulate. Please take it home in a warm car. When you get home, remove plastic and paper packaging as soon as possible. Place the poinsettia in bright, filtered light, not direct sunlight. Do not expose to warm or cold wind. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 19 and 22 degrees Celsius.
When the top 1-2 cm of media is dry, water the poinsettia sparingly. Do not let it dry completely, but do not soak it in water. Allow excess water to drain from the pan. If you keep poinsettias as houseplants, apply a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorus water-soluble fertilizer once a month.
As the day lengthens, the new bracts that emerge are green. To start colored bracts for the upcoming Christmas season, place in the dark for at least 12 hours daily starting in September. This 12 hour “dark period” should not be completely obscured by light. New color bracts start to appear from around the beginning of November.
Some people don’t buy poinsettias because they are said to be poisonous. Plant sap can be irritating to people and pets, but is not toxic. Studies show that a 20 kg dog or child must eat 500-600 bracts or drink 2 kg of sap before he becomes toxic. The sap is very bitter, so if pets or children start eating the plant, they will shy away from further consumption due to the bitter taste.
Whether it’s the traditional red poinsettia or the newer pink, peach, or speckled types, with proper care, you can enjoy your poinsettia during the Christmas season and beyond.

This column is courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; ). Check out his website at or our Facebook page at for a list of upcoming horticultural events.


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How to care for your poinsettia

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