Much like strings of lights dotting neighborhoods at night, poinsettias color the daylight hours of the holiday season. Keeping poinsettias looking their best through the season, however, offers some unique challenges. Knowing a little more about this symbol of the season can ensure its beauty lasts well after the gifts have been opened.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. These vibrant plants are typically grown in greenhouses, usually from cuttings received from growers who specialize in poinsettias.
People in the United States traditionally begin looking for these plants in stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some stores may stock the plant before the Thanksgiving holiday, but after Christmas they are hard to find. Knowing what to look for is key to finding a plant that will survive the season.
“When selecting a poinsettia what you look for is the actual flower,” said Kansas State University Extension associate Ward Upham. “The red parts that people call flowers are actually modified leaves called bracts. In the very center of the plant you will notice little, yellow, almost-round things. If they look fresh, then you will know the poinsettia is fresh.”
Two things to be careful of are temperature and soil moisture, said Upham, who is the Master Gardener program coordinator with K-State Research and Extension.
Temperature generally can be managed well by keeping the plant indoors.
“The temperature that they like is nothing under 60 degrees,” Upham said. “Keeping the temperature around 65 to 70 degrees during the day and 60 to 65 degrees at night will help prolong their growth.”
As for moisture, an easy way to detect dry soil is by lifting the plant: If it seems like it does not weigh much, it is too dry. Buyers should also avoid over-watered plants. Poinsettias are sensitive to dry and overly wet soil.
“Poinsettias are one of those plants where you have to do a good job of watering,” Upham said. “When they are watered, they should be watered well. They should be watered so that enough water goes all the way through and comes out the bottom. If there is foil around the plant, holes should be made in the bottom of that foil so the water has a place to escape. The soil should be kept moist.”
During the day, poinsettias should be placed somewhere with ample sunlight, Upham said. The plant can be moved away from sunlight and placed as needed for short periods of time – if guests are present for a holiday celebration, for example.
After the holiday season poinsettias should be discarded. The plants have the ability to keep their color for months after the season, but Upham noted it is difficult to bring poinsettias back into bloom.
Upham noted that poinsettias can only be outside during the summer. Like other tropical plants, they are not hardy in Kansas will die once the weather gets cold.
As nice as they are to look at, poinsettias have a bad reputation — one that is unfounded, according to Upham: “Poinsettias are not poisonous to children. That has been tested.”
Ohio State University dispelled the myth by documenting when a person ate poinsettia leaves to show that they were not poisonous.
“They taste awful, but they are not poisonous,” Upham said, adding that the leaves are also not very toxic to pets. The milky sap the plants produce can cause mouth irritation but it is mild.
Alicia Boor is the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for Barton County K-State Research and Extension. You can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com or calling 620-793-1910