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.
Photo by Dreamstime/Gunold
I imagine Poinsett was quite enthusiastic as he sent his cuttings back to the U.S. But by the time they arrived, they would have lost their colorful bracts and seemed plain and uninteresting to anyone who saw them. Most botanists considered the plant a weed, and without any proof of its monetary value, he couldn’t raise much interest in his find. An amateur botanist himself, he wasn’t put off by the lack of interest in his cuttings, and he continued to cultivate the plants at his home in South Carolina. Thinking about my mom’s scraggly post-Christmas plant, I’m amazed by the visionary capacity he possessed.
Poinsett eventually succeeded in his efforts to establish the plant in the U.S., and it wasn’t long before enterprising folks, such as famed poinsettia grower Paul Ecke Sr., began the race for improvement. Ecke took a spindly plant and developed a proprietary way to grow poinsettias that branched more profusely, resulting in bushier, more attractive plants. Some breeders worked to make the plants less susceptible to drafts during shipment, and others made the stalks sturdier. Over 100 new cultivars of poinsettias have been created since Poinsett introduced the first cuttings. Colors now include apricot, yellow, cream, white, red, burgundy, salmon, and several speckled variations. But if you’d like to keep your blue or fluorescent-purple poinsettia around for another bloom, you’ll be disappointed; the plants with bold, unusual colors are artificially colored with dyes.
This season, when you venture out to purchase your own decorative poinsettia, make sure your plant will receive the proper care.
- Choose a plant without pollen on its flowers. True poinsettia flowers aren’t the showy red bracts we associate with the plant, but instead the small yellow bulblets in the center of the bracts. Shortly after pollen appears on these bulblets, the plant will begin to drop its leaves.
- Protect your plant from the cold when transporting it from the store to your house. Any drop in temperature or cold draft, and it’s likely to start dropping leaves.
- Don’t overwater your poinsettia. Feel the soil every day or so, and only water when it’s dry.
- Keep your poinsettia somewhere cozy and away from drafts. They do best in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Once you get through the holidays, you’ll need to start thinking about the rest of the year. First things first: Move your poinsettia to a brightly lit place. By January or February, it’ll likely only have green leaves, as all the colored bracts will be gone. This is the time to start thinking about the future shape of your poinsettia. You may choose to cultivate for a bushy habit, wait to see the natural structure of your plant, or begin to create a bonsai shape. It’s up to you, but if you wish to make a bushier plant in anticipation of another beautiful holiday season, here’s what you’ll need to do:
- When the leaves drop, trim your plant down to 4 inches above the soil. Give it a balanced houseplant fertilizer to help it put on new leaves.
- When outside temperatures reach 60 degrees or higher at night, move your plant outdoors and keep it in full sun.
- Trim your plant again in July. This time, the goal isn’t to trim it down to a specific height. Instead, trim the tops of the stems to encourage branching. This is a great time to repot your poinsettia into a slightly bigger pot and give it another dose of balanced houseplant fertilizer.
- Bring your plant inside around Labor Day. Keep it somewhere with plenty of light and a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees.
Photo by Getty Images/svetikd
In order to bloom again, your plant will need to experience 14 hours of total dark each day for 8 to 10 weeks, or until the bracts start developing color. Try a closet, or use a darkened cloche. For the other 10 hours of the day, bring your plant out into the light. If you want your poinsettia in bloom by Thanksgiving, you’ll need to start this process somewhere in the middle of September. If you’d rather aim for later in December, adjust your plans accordingly.
Finally, if you do decide to ditch your poinsettia, toss it into your compost pile, or that of a friend or local gardener, to ensure it’s disposed of responsibly.
Worth the Work
Even though the great race to produce new and spectacular poinsettias has benefited the species as a whole, I lament that so many of them go in the trash each year. But that doesn’t have to be the case! If you remember what these plants are and where they come from, you’ll always be more successful keeping them going throughout the year. It’s tricky to get a poinsettia to bloom again, and without diligent care, the plant won’t maintain the lush appearance that’s available in stores; poinsettias tend to return to their weedy nature as soon as they’re given the chance. But even if your poinsettia doesn’t produce colorful bracts again, it’s still a lovely plant to have around.
I don’t think my mother’s poinsettia has ever bloomed for her again, but she enjoys the plant for its wild charm. (I know where I got my love for weeds!) Give it a try. After all, what do you have to lose?
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist and herbalist. She’s the formulator at Mockingbird Meadows and chief soda jerk at her family’s unique storefront apothecary, Soda Pharm. She’s the author of Sweet Remedies: Healing Herbal Honeys, as well as Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.