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Poinsettias Past Christmas

Caring for poinsettia plants after the holidays.

Christmas PoinsettiaWho hasn’t received a velvety, red-leafed poinsettia as a gift or purchased one or more for their home during the holiday season? And how many of those poinsettias survive the year to flower again next holiday season? Hmmm…

Long ago and far away when I was a school teacher, I was given a beautiful poinsettia by one of my darling, young students. It had obvious problems, planted in a small plastic pot filled with a dry concoction dominated by Styrofoam chips. Obviously, its grower didn’t intend for it to last into the new year. Ignorant of growing poinsettias but generally knowledgeable about what plants needed, we repotted it on the solstice, thereby saving the plant but losing its blossoms.

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With its root ball in a big new home filled with nourishing, compost-laden soil mix, our poinsettia thrived, though it never again blossomed. It seemed to grow best during fall and winter and over the years became something of a twisted bonsai with its circling branches decorated with spare green leaves. Placed in a west facing doorway that was seldom used, it cast amazing shadows on our modest living room’s eastern wall as the setting sun filtered through its branches.

With a little more poinsettia-specific knowledge, we could have kept that plant alive and had it blossom every year. Poinsettias are tropical plants and their care must mimic the conditions in their natural homes. There are plenty of good web sites that discuss the care of poinsettias and we’ve taken what we’ve learned and brought it here. First of all, I made a mistake immediately transplanting that long-ago poinsettia. If I’d waited until late spring the following year, watering the plant sufficiently into January and then cutting back during the dormant season, it might have done better. As it was, I was lucky the thing survived. That was probably due to the moist climate where I lived (annual rainfall on that part of the Olympic Peninsula was over 50 inches a year; sunlight was the problem). Poinsettias like humidity.

The other thing I didn’t know to do — but I should have — is to snip the plants stems, especially those with red leaves, back mercilessly, say four inches, in the middle of spring (early May in most temperate locations). Most poinsettia growers recommend trimming the stems back again another inch in late July. Makes sense; something like deadheading flowers in your garden to keep them blooming.

You can set poinsettias outside in a shady place during the summer. Just remember to keep them watered so there’s no die back. To encourage blossoming, you need to trick your plants into thinking the sun is at its least conspicuous phase. The plant needs about 10 weeks of no more than eight hours of daylight to begin bringing forth red-blossom “leaves.” So around October 1st, start making sure your plant is in a dark place from, say, 4pm to 8am or whatever best fits your schedule. By the second week of December, you and your family should be seeing red! (heh, heh… don’t forget that poinsettias also come variegated and in a luscious white).

The University of Illinois Extension has a wonderful poinsettia site that discusses its history as well as its care. Here are suggestions for buying a healthy poinsettia. Other worthy websites are here and here. Last question: are poinsettia poisonous? Apparently not, despite the popular misconception that they are.

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3 Responses to “Poinsettias Past Christmas”

  1. Elena Sierra on January 6th, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

    I would like to know more about their care… Every year I buy them but after February they start to die.

  2. Lynne henderson on November 3rd, 2017 at 4:27 am #

    I must be lucky, my poinsettia is 5 years old. I’ve just chopped it back when it’s finished flowering, fed it for two or three months and left it on the windowsill. It’s not the prettiest but I love it, and it gives me red flowers. ?

  3. Margaret on December 7th, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    I used to rent an old house which was surrounded by poinsettias as tall as my roof, they were like small trees. I loved looking out the windows through the red flowers, which were, by the way, rather small compared to the commercial flowers we see for sale.

    I have visited the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas California. I talked to a horticulturist there. He told me that the poinsettias that are commercially grown are not meant to live very long, and are never going to ever be anything like the old poinsettia at my former home. The plants have been bred to have larger flowers and they do not have the hardiness of the original un-engineered plant.

    It may be that the only way to get a “real” poinsettia is to get a cutting from someone who is fortunate enough to have one. There are still old houses in California that have them growing. The native poinsettia is very tough.

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