Most people know practically nothing about that most popular of Christmas plants, the poinsettia, and that is an absolute shame. Poinsettias have a rich history which makes them almost as good as a conversation piece as an ornamental fixture on your dinner table.
The poinsettia is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a physician, amateur botanist and the first US Minister to Mexico. Known as “flor de nochebuena” (flower of Christmas Eve) in Mexico, the poinsettia was given its United States name after Poinsett ran across this beautiful plant during one of his Mexican visits and sent it home to Charleston, S.C.
In their native Mexico, poinsettias are typically a shrub or small tree. In fact, with proper care, you can grow your tabletop poinsettia for many years to a height of ten feet or even more. Unfortunately, as poinsettias get older they grow spindly and just don’t have that same Christmasy feel.
Once upon a time poinsettias weren’t easy to grow. They respond to the shorter days of the winter by blooming, and if the day length isn’t just right they won’t bloom at the right time. Poinsettia growers used to have to pull cloths over the poinsettias around October to make the days short enough to get them ready to bloom and sell for Christmas. But today they have been bred so that they rarely need this treatment.
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Despite what many people think, poinsettias have some of the most boring flowers in the plant kingdom. Not that they’re ugly, just that they’re kind of small and unspectacular. Those big red things on poinsettias that make them so attractive are actually leaves called bracts, not flower petals at all. The flowers themselves are insignificant and largely hidden by the bracts.
The differences in color between the bracts on different poinsettias is capitalized on by poinsettia breeders resulting in well over 100 cultivated varieties. Many people prefer the classic reds, but nowadays pinks (such as ‘Pink Cadillac’), whites (such as ‘Whitestar’), and even spotted poinsettias (such as ‘Jingle Bell Rock’) are available. My personal favorite is called ‘Autumn Leaves’ which has bracts that are a pleasant shade of orange yellow reminiscent of a beautiful fall day.
If you’re one of the 99 percent who just care for poinsettias from the time they purchase them until the day after Christmas, the most important thing to worry about is keeping your plant from drying out.
The best way to schedule watering is to check the moisture in your poinsettia’s container by sticking your finger into it. When you remove your finger, if a few particles are stuck to your finger, then it’s properly watered. If it feels like a wet sponge, then it’s overwatered, and if it comes out dry, well then it’s time to water those plants!
And be sure to remove that decorative foil around your container before you water, Otherwise you will drown your plant. If you are hoping to keep your poinsettia beyond the holidays consider using a slow release fertilizer, like osmocote, which you can add a few times a year depending on how long it lasts.
Jeff Gillman is director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens