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How to Pick and Care for Holiday Poinsettias

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Growing Poinsettias

Red poinsettias are the beloved symbols of Christmas and the world's single most popular houseplant.

Photo © Jon VanZile

Poinsettias are the most popular houseplant in the world. Every Christmas season, Americans snap up more than $200 million worth of the festive plants. They adorn mantels, tables, and hallways across the country. Poinsettias were originally brought to the United States by Joel R. Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He liked the spiky red desert plant so much he shipped in the first load in 1820. Today, the plant bears his name and is so popular we even have a National Poinsettia Day (December 12).

The vast majority of people have no intention of keeping their Christmas keepsakes past January, and the plant ends up in the compost pile or garbage bin. No problem there. Poinsettias are cheap. If this is you, simply follow the directions below to get the most from your seasonal poinsettias.

But some hardy souls aim to keep the plants and bloom them again. Beware: this is a dicey proposition that requires a special touch, so if you plan to try it, be prepared to take extraordinary measures. In some warmer, subtropical areas, poinsettias can be transplanted outside in January, where they will grow into their native shrubby form.

Caring For Your Seasonal Poinsettia

There are about 200 varieties of poinsettias on the market today, including the nearly ubiquitous red (which still account for 90 percent of sales) as well as speckled, white, pink and even orange varieties. Like bromeliads, the actual flower of a poinsettia is small and insignificant. It's the large bract that gives all the color. When you're picking and caring for poinsettias, keep the following points in mind:

  • Check for broken branches. Poinsettias are naturally brittle plants that break easily in transit. Make sure the branches are intact, with no cracked limbs held together by the plant sleeve.
  • Check the flowers. The poinsettia's flowers are tiny, yellow flowers in the center of the showy bract. Make sure they're not opened yet so the plant will last longer.
  • Avoid greening bracts. If the red or colored portions of the flower bract have begun to turn green, the plant is older and it won't retain its colors as long.
  • Count the bracts. You want a compact plant with as many bracts as possible. Some professional growers insist on 8 to 12 bracts for a 6-inch potted plant.
  • Remove the sleeve. Do not keep your new poinsettia in its planter's sleeve. These are arid, subtropical plants and need good air circulation and excellent drainage to thrive. Sleeves often hold water and promote plant decline.
  • Do not overwater. The compost surface should be slightly dry before you water again. However, when you do water, water the plant thoroughly and ensure free drainage. Do not let the compost dry completely.
  • No fertilizer during the holiday season. This will hasten the decline of the flower bracts. They prefer to be a little hungry for a better show.
  • Avoid drafty, cold locations. Do not place near windows or doors or under vents where cold air will blow directly on them. Poinsettias prefer warmer air.
  • Give them light. Poinsettias prefer bright light during the winter flowering season.

    Troubleshooting Your Poinsettia

    Even if you only plan to keep your poinsettia for a few weeks during the holiday season, it is still a shame to lose a plant. The most common problems experienced by poinsettias are loss of leaves and leaves turning yellow or brown.

    Yellowing or brown leaves are most likely caused by dry air. Although poinsettias do not like to sit in water, they do like humidity. If your plant begins to look crinkly around the leaf edges, try misting it regularly or setting the pot in a tray filled with pebbles and water to raise the ambient humidity.

    If your plant wilts suddenly and drops its leaves, there are two probable causes: overwatering or underwater. Soggy soil will result in sudden leaf drop, and allowing the plant to become bone dry will result in decline of the plant.

    However, if your plant begins to drop healthy, non-wilted leaves, the culprit is probably a cold draft or too little light. Try relocating the plant to a brighter, less drafts location.

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