In its native Mexico, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) goes by the name of Noche Buena, which literally means, “the good night.” Noche Buena is actually how Spanish speakers refer to Christmas Eve. This is an appropriate name for this plant as it alludes to the time when it puts on its greatest show of color, and to the fact that it is often used as a decoration in Christmas celebrations. In Mexico, the poinsettia can grow to be a small tree, and is a perennial.
Here in the States, the plant owes its name to Joel R. Poinsett, who was a botanist and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He is responsible for introducing the plant to the U.S. around 1825. You more often than not see an abundance of poinsettias only during the Christmas season. However, if cared for correctly they can last well beyond spring.
Poinsettias put on a spectacular show of color through their bracts, or modified leaves. The flowers themselves are inconspicuous tiny yellow flowers found in the middle of the bracts. Poinsettias will typically maintain their colorful bracts until early spring. In my experience, the Poinsettia can be a challenge to care for after March or so. However, I’ve learned a few basic techniques to keep them healthy and strong long all year long.
One of the most important factors is your selection at the nursery. Regardless of what type of poinsettia you’re buying, yellowing or pale leaves are a sign that the plant has not been grown under the right conditions. If the leaves or bracts are brittle or falling off, don’t buy the plant.
In selecting the common red poinsettia from your local nursery, the plants with the darkest leaves are generally the healthiest plants. If you’re buying one of the other colors of poinsettia such as pink, the leaves are usually a little lighter. Also, make sure you pick plants with flowers that haven’t opened up yet. If you spot pollen on the small flowers, don’t buy these plants. Plants that have the flowers still closed up will last the longest.
The next thing to remember when you take you plant home from the nursery is that it is cold outside in December! Well, in most parts of the country. Regardless, you should protect you plant from the cold during transportation. Gently wrap the plant in a blanket between the nursery and the car.
Additionally, keep your poinsettia away from the cold once you get it home. Avoid cold drafts and don’t get your poinsettia too close to the window. Keep temperatures in your house around 70 degrees in the day and no lower than 60 at night. Place your plant in a spot where it gets plenty of sunlight, but not intense, direct sun. About six to seven hours a day will do. Filtered light is the best.
Next, inspect the container for proper drainage. Poinsettias need plenty of water, but if kept too wet, they can suffer from rot or fungus that attack the roots, so punch additional holes in the container or decorative wrapping if necessary. Water frequently, when the soil begins to feel dry to the touch. Make sure the plant does not sit in standing water. If you have a tray at the bottom of the plant, remove the water frequently.
During the time you have your poinsettia, you should be on the lookout for common pests that attack this plant. Whiteflies are a frequent problem. Simply dilute a little Castille soap with water and spray off the flies. Mealy bugs may also cause trouble and can be treated with rubbing alcohol applied with a Q-tip.
After Christmas has past, you can start preparing your poinsettia for the spring and summer months. Although there is no need to fertilize your plant during Christmas, you can begin to fertilize in the early spring with a fertilizer that has a good balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Once to twice a month is recommended. Also, consider using a high quality organic fertilizer or a compost tea.
Around March, pick off the bracts and any dead leaves. It is also a good idea to transplant your poinsettia into a larger container around this time. Next, prune back your plant around June through August. Look for any particularly long branches to prune back. You can consider training your plant into various shapes as well.
As you approach the cooler fall months, you’ll need to begin to isolate you plant in total darkness to encourage reflowering. The last week of September, move your plants to a part of your house that can remain dark for 14 hours a day. Be very careful not to let any natural or artificial light enter the room. Keep the temperature around 65 degrees and no lower than 60 degrees. Water infrequently when the soil begins to feel dry. By early November, you should start to see new bracts appearing, just in time for Christmas.
For more information on the poinsettia, see this great site from The University of Minnesota Extension Service.