With its vibrant red flower-like leaves, known as bracts, above its deep green leaves, the poinsettia is possibly the most popular Christmas plant in the western world, as well as in Australia. The actual flowers of the poinsettia are the tiny yellow buds in the middle of the red bracts; you may need a magnifying glass to see them. Part of the poinsettia's popularity, apart from the colours, which are similar to the colours of holly, may be its wide availability and its relatively low cost.
We can thank amateur botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett for the Euphorbia pulcherrima1, the botanical name for the poinsettia plant. It is believed that while he was serving as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) Poinsett visited Taxcoin, Mexico in 1828. He became so fascinated by the flame-red blooms that he sent some cuttings to be cultivated in hothouses his homeland of Greenville, South Carolina.
It was a successful experiment; Poinsett sent the plants to many botanical gardens and also to friends and associates, some of whom were botanists. By around 1836 the plant that had so fascinated Joel Roberts Poinsett was known as the poinsettia.
Joel wasn't the first to discover the qualities of the poinsettia. According to Mexican legend, ancient Aztecs discovered some rather different qualities for what they called cuetlaxochitl. They used extracts from the plants: a purplish dye from its bracts was used in textiles, and a milky white sap from the green leaves was used for medication for fevers. Today that same sticky milky white sap is known in the botanic world as 'latex'. It is a skin irritant, so take care when handling the plant.
The poinsettia has gathered a few nicknames throughout the years, including Christmas Star, Lobster Plant and Mexican Flame Leaf.
As a temporary winter plant the poinsettia is a decorative, undemanding plant and is easy to care for. Cultivation only gets complicated if you decide to try to keep it for the following year.
If you are one of those people who like to put your pot plants into a larger pot, usually a decorative china one, and then water the plant by filling the outer pot once a week or so, take care. You can't do this with a poinsettia, as it will damage the roots. When the soil at the top of the poinsettia feels dry to the touch, take it to the kitchen sink or draining board and, using a house plant watering can or a jug, slowly pour the water until it comes out of the bottom drain hole. When the water has finished draining, place a folded sheet of kitchen roll underneath the pot, to prevent drips on your carpet, and replace the plant in its usual place. If your poinsettia happens to get too dry, water it twice with a five-minute interval between waterings.
Your poinsettia should ideally be placed where it gets the maximum amount of natural light. However, a windowsill is not a suitable place, as the cold window panes could damage the sensitive leaves if they are in contact with the window. Also, do not place your poinsettia near radiators or other heat sources that may burn its leaves.
Be aware that poinsettias may be toxic to animals. If you have any pets that are likely to be attracted to the plant, they need to be considered when positioning it. There's no current evidence that poinsettias are toxic to babies, children or adults.
Recycle or Re-use
To be quite honest, poinsettias are so easy and cheap to buy it is much easier to recycle your poinsettia in the compost heap when it has fulfilled its purpose as a Christmas plant, and to buy a new one for next year.
However, if you are one of those people who likes a challenge, that's what the yearly care of a poinsettia is likely to be. There is some conflicting advice about the best way to care for a poinsettia throughout the year; the methods in this Entry are just one view.
Continue with the watering routine as explained above, until 1 April. Between then and the middle of May is the poinsettia's drying out time though you need to take care that it doesn't get so dry that the stems shrivel. Next is storage time; place the plant either upright or on its side at around 10°C in a well-ventilated area.
You will need some equipment for the next phase, to be carried out at around the middle of May. You will need secateurs, a plant pot which is one or two inches in diameter larger than the size of current one and houseplant compost. Firstly, use your secateurs to reduce the poinsettia to approximately four inches above the soil. Follow that by re-planting using your larger plant pot and compost. Alternatively, if you feel your plant pot is big enough, simply remove the poinsettia, carefully shake the old compost from around the roots, and then replace with fresh compost to re-plant. Now your poinsettia will be ready for a good watering, so much so that you will need to water it twice, with a five-minute interval between the waterings.
It gets easier now, for a few weeks. Move your poinsettia back to an area where it gets the most natural light, but not in a draughty location. Ideally the temperature should be 15 to 25°C. You can also start watering regularly again, as explained above. Keep a look out for new growth, as this is when you will need to start using an appropriate fertiliser every couple of weeks, following the instuctions on your fertiliser product.
When June arrives, your poinsettia can become a patio plant for a few months, as it's now time to move it outside. It won't look very pretty, so it's just as well that it will prefer a lightly shaded area, so it should be relatively easy to hide from view; not so hidden that you can't find it though, as you need to continue with the watering and fertilising routine.
Next you need to be cruel to be kind; if you don't follow these steps your poinsettia is likely to grow tall and straggly. Around the end of the first week of July, remove approximately one inch from the top of each stem.
There's more pruning to do in the last week of August; trim back those nice new shoots leaving three or four leaves on each shoot. You can now move your poinsettia back indoors, again in an area where it is exposed to the most natural light, and continue with the watering and fertilising routine.
Poinsettias are what's known as short-day plants; you're about to find out what that means. At the beginning of October, you need to find a nice dark cupboard or suitable lidded box2 that you will keep closed between 5.00pm and 8.30am for eight weeks. It's of vital importance that your poinsettia is not exposed to any light during these periods, as any exposure to light could prevent the bracts from turning red. You might want to go so far as using a 'do not open' notice on your poinsettia's dark place to remind yourself and others in your home not to disturb the plant. Between 8.30am and 5.00pm, place your poinsettia where it gets the most natural light and continue with the watering and fertilising routine.
After eight weeks you can proudly display your well looked-after poinsettia, and care for it as described at the begining of this Entry. Then start the whole process all over again for the following year.