How To Grow And Care For Poinsettias

With proper care and maintenance, your poinsettias will continue to bloom during the Christmas season year after year.

Most people in North America recognize the poinsettia as a traditional Christmas flower. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are semi-tropical woody shrubs that are native to the mountains of Mexico. In 1825 the US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, for whom the poinsettia is named, introduced the plants to the United States. Today, the state of California is the largest commercial grower of poinsettias in the world.

Poinsettias are propagated using leaf cuttings but most poinsettias are purchased as potted plants that are in full bloom during the Christmas Holiday season. The red, white, or pale yellow or pink showy flowers are in fact not flowers at all. They are bracts, which are modified leaves. The actual flowers are quite small and non-descript. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous, although the white sap that exudes from the stems and leaves may irritate the skin.

Poinsettias should be kept indoors in winter unless you reside in a mild climate. They prefer full sun and grow best when daytime temperatures are between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures should be cooler, but no colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. When keeping poinsettias indoors do not place near open windows, doors, or heat registers. The plants are somewhat temperamental and do not like temperature variations.

To avoid premature leaf drop, remove any plastic wrapping from the pot to allow water to drain and air to circulate around the plant. Water the poinsettia plant when the soil is dry but make sure it does not stay saturated. Fertilize once or twice a month with a commercial fertilizer specifically used for houseplants. Mealy bugs, white flies, and several varieties of soil fungi are some of the pests that bother poinsettias, especially when kept indoors or over watered, and it may be necessary to use fungicides or insecticides to get rid of them.

Occasionally the poinsettia plant will retain its leaves over the winter and can be transferred outside when the weather becomes warmer. Often however, the plant goes dormant and drops its leaves. If this happens, stop watering the plant and allow the soil to dry out. Move the poinsettia to a dry cool location such as the basement, but make sure the plant is near a window so that it still receives some light.

In late spring, move the poinsettia back into the house and prune the stems and branches until they are 3 to 5 inches above the soil line. Place the poinsettia in a location where it will get filtered light. After several weeks move the poinsettia to a sunnier location, or if it is warm enough, outdoors. Do not fertilize until at least one or two inches of new growth appears. If the plant becomes too leggy pinch the tops of the stems to force lateral growth of the branches.

In order for your poinsettia to bloom in time for the Christmas season, the photoperiod, or the amount of daylight it receives, must be artificially shortened. Starting at the end of September, just after the autumn equinox, keep the poinsettia in complete darkness from 5 to 8 pm every day. Do this either by moving the plant to a closet or covering it with a black heavy-duty cardboard box that does not allow light to penetrate. Depending on the specific cultivar, your poinsettia should begin to bloom within 8 to 12 weeks. With proper care your poinsettia will continue to bloom for several months.

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