Post-Holiday Poinsettia Care

Do away with the wasteful, one-season mindset and keep your poinsettia plant blooming year after year.

| November/December 2019

Photo by Getty Images/Neyya

Well-known for its festive red and green foliage, the poinsettia routinely tops the list as the country’s best-selling potted plant. In fact, more than $140 million worth of poinsettias are sold annually in the United States, mostly during the month and a half before Christmas. Unfortunately, this means that approximately 34 million plants are bought, displayed, and then tossed out by the time January rolls around.

I’m sure it’s not an accident that most of us treat the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) like an annual. After all, its ability to play dead just after the holidays is understandably confusing. But the poinsettia is actually a perennial, and, unlike a Christmas tree, isn’t cut down before we bring it into our homes, meaning that it doesn’t have to be thrown out. Most of us simply don’t understand the potential of these “seasonal” plants.

My mother was probably the first person to show me that the poinsettia could have a life after the holidays. She hates to throw anything away, and the first time I saw the leggy, colorless sticks rising above the festive foil-wrapped pot, I thought my mother was taking her frugality a bit too far. But when she proudly displayed her beautiful poinsettia the following Christmas, I decided to learn what I could about these intriguing plants.

The Path to Popularity

E. pulcherrima is actually a tropical shrub that’s native to Mexico, where it can still be found growing tall and spindly in the underbrush, averaging heights of 10 to 15 feet. Poinsettias have been in cultivation since the time of the Aztecs, who used it medicinally to reduce fevers, as well as to make a reddish dye. During the 17th century, Franciscan priests began to use the plant in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.

 Despite a long cultivation history, the poinsettia was oftentimes regarded as little more than a weed. It was initially dismissed when Joel Poinsett — the first U.S. envoy to Mexico, and the man from whom the plant’s common English name is derived — introduced it in the U.S. in 1828. Poinsett must have come upon the plant when its red modified leaves, or “bracts,” were “in bloom,” and fallen under its spell. Perhaps he’d heard the origin legends of the lowly weed that was offered by a poor child to celebrate Christmas. According to legend, when the green leaves were presented as a gift during a nativity service, they were accepted by the Christ child as a worthy offering, appreciated above all the other riches, and the leaves were turned red as a reward.

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