Poinsettias

If there’s one plant that’s truly the holiday houseplant, it’s the poinsettia.

The Latin name of the poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima. The species name for this plant  – pulcherrima – means most beautiful. While there are lots of euphorbia species, the poinsettia certainly deserves the title “most beautiful.” This plant is native to southern Mexico. The poinsettia was introduced to the US in 1825 by Joel R. Poinsett, the first U. S. ambassador to Mexico and the one for whom this plant is named.

IMG_3928When I was growing up, poinsettias were red – period. In the late ’60’s you started to see some white and pink ones. But now poinsettias come in a variety of colors and types: pink, salmon, raspberry, burgundy, yellow, white, two-tone, spotted, speckled, some with crumpled bracts, others with variegated foliage and of course, red. Mr. Poinsett would be amazed!

The showy parts of a poinsettia aren’t petals but are instead modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers are the yellowish button-like structures in the center of the bracts.

Poinsettia's true flowers just beginning to open

Poinsettia’s true flowers just beginning to open

While the true flowers of a poinsettia aren’t what draw your eye when you see it, they are what you should look at when you choose a poinsettia plant. If the true flowers are shedding pollen or falling off, it means that the plant is old and the bracts might not last very long. It’s better to choose a poinsettia with flowers that are still tight and green. This insures that the plant hasn’t blossomed and it’s more likely that the bracts will last longer.

Also look to see that there are leaves all along the stem of the plant before you buy it. If the bottom half of a poinsettia plant doesn’t have leaves, it means that the plant has been stressed and won’t last as long as a healthy plant.

Caring for a poinsettia is pretty easy. They prefer a bright or sunny spot with temperatures between 60 and 70°F. Poinsettias don’t like drafts of any kind. They do best in a location where there won’t be cold drafts from doors opening and closing or hot air from radiators or heating vents.

While poinsettias grow best in moist soil, it’s better to err on the side of keeping then too dry than too wet.  Leaving a plant sitting in a saucer of water can lead to root disease. Also, if the plants are wrapped in foil, be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the foil to prevent water from accumulating around the base of the pot. (I recently went to a garden center and all of the poinsettias were wrapped with plastic pot covers. I looked at a few of them and realized that the pot covers were full of water – needless to say I didn’t purchase any of those plants!)

With good care a poinsettia will easily retain its bracts through the holiday season. While you can get a poinsettia to rebloom with the proper care and carefully regulated periods of light and darkness in the fall, I’ve never tried it. The plants are so readily available and inexpensive that I haven’t been able to justify the work involved in getting one to rebloom! Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Also it’s commonly thoughts that poinsettias are poisonous but studies have shown that no part of the poinsettia plant is poisonous to people or pets. While this certainly isn’t a recommendation to eat poinsettias (!), there’s no danger having them in a house with children or pets.

006 (2)Whether you like the traditional red poinsettia or some of the newer varieties, nothing says Christmas like a poinsettia. For me, I couldn’t imagine a holiday season without some of these most beautiful euphorbia plants in my house.

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