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A Guide to Poinsettias: History, Care, and Maintenance

The History of the Poinsettia

One of the most recognizable and sought-after plants of the holiday season, poinsettias have had quite a journey. Though interesting in their own right, the origin of the poinsettia is more unassuming than one would think (as they now adorn not only the White House corridors, but the entry way of your local Applebees.)

The poinsettia was not prized by the Aztecs for their striking red bracts but for their medicinal purposes, as they were highly effective in reducing fevers. It wasn’t until 1828 that poinsettias made their way to America-a voyage that would change the horticultural-based retail market forever.

The story began when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the son of a French physician, was appointed the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by President Madison. Even though he had followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated with a degree in medicine, Poinsett was fiercely dedicated to his love of botany. While visiting Mexico, in 1828, he found himself drawn to the strikingly red blooms. (Actually, they are not flowers but colored bracts, a kind of modified leaf.) He sent them back to his greenhouse in Greenville, South Carolina, as well as to his botanist friend, Robert Buist. Buist sold the plant as “Euphorbia pulcherrima,” meaning beautiful, as he was also taken by the plant’s vibrant hue. When the poinsettia broke through the cracks of his greenhouse floor, he also became impressed with the plants’ strength!

So though Poinsett is responsible for bringing what we now know as the poinsettia to America, others helped cultivate it to its smaller size. In fact, the large, original version still grows as a tree in Mexico.

Interesting Facts/Care and Maintenance
So now that we’ve journeyed to the present- what makes them special and how can you best care for them this holiday season?

Poinsettias are the #1 selling holiday plant in the USA but take caution if you have a latex allergy. The poinsettia is in the Euphorbiaceae family, a group known to ooze a milky sap. This sap has been known to produce a reaction to those who have an allergy to latex. This sap also causes nausea for our furry friends, so best to keep Fido and Fluffy away.

Though poinsettias have been referred to as the lobster flower and the flame leaf for it’s red color, there are more than 100 varieties available today. You can get still that traditional rouge at McDonald Garden Center, but rising in popularity are our painted poinsettias. Really want to up the glam factor? Try one with glitter!

There are varying stories about the origin of the poinsettia. Many in Mexico and Guatemala know the plant as “La Flor de la Nochebuena” or “Flower of the Holy Night,” while the Aztecs refer the plant as “Cuitlaxochiti,” or “flower that grows in soil.” In Spain, the poinsettia isn’t attributed to Christmas at all, but is instead called “Flor de Pascua,” which means, “Easter Flower.”

Care and Maintenance

• Poinsettias should be placed in a south facing area with lots of light or bright, filtered light.

• Ideally they should be kept at 68° during the day, and bit cooler temps at night.
•Water regularly and make sure the soil is moist to the touch.
•Keep away from windows and heaters

Can my Poinsettia come back?
If you want your poinsettia to “bloom” again next season, it is possible, but it takes some work. The best way to ensure success is to continue to water your poinsettia until the middle of spring. When you get to that midpoint, you can allow the stems to shrivel up by drying the plant out. Keep in a cool area until spring ends. Early summer, repot and cut all growth to a couple inches above the soil line. In about a month, move the pot outside, but only in the shade. Continue to cut growing tips until mid summer. Before the fall season, return the poinsettia indoors. Find an area with lots of sun, watering and feeding regularly.
When fall begins, its time to start the process of returning the leaves to whatever color they were the previous year. This can take up to two months. First, change over from a nitrogen-based fertilizer to one made for houseplants. (Plant Tone from Espoma is a nice option.) Place the plant in 13 hours of complete, uninterrupted darkness and 11 hours of bright sunshine per day. After about two months, remove the time spent in darkness and place in the sunniest area of your home. Then enjoy!