No, Virginia, Poinsettias Won’t Kill You! Growing and Maintaining Poinsettias All Year
Dec 07, 2023
No, Virginia, Poinsettias Won’t Kill You! Growing and Maintaining Poinsettias All Year
November 28, 2023
Have you ever received a poinsettia as a holiday gift? Like, from your boss, or maybe a friendly neighbor? Did you think, “Gee, thanks for the pretty plant that might KILL ME, MY PETS, AND MY FAMILY” before stashing it on the tallest surface of your home?
We’ve got news for you. While we really don’t know whether or not the giftee wants to take you down, we can assure you that you don’t have to follow hazmat-level handling protocols when enjoying Euphorbia pulcherrima. While poinsettias may be irritating if ingested, even a little kid or small pet would have to eat an awful lot of the bitter-tasting plant before falling ill.
Another myth will have you believe that poinsettias are difficult to grow from seed. That means you can be the friend, neighbor, or employer that keeps people guessing about your intentions. Whether you want to update them on poinsettia’s toxicity status is up to you.
Here’s what you need to know about these iconic holiday plants:
History of the Poinsettia
Poinsettias are deciduous shrubs native to western Mexico and Central America where, when left to their own devices, they can grow as high as 15 feet. The Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl which, according to the University of Illinois means “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.” Aztecs used the plant to celebrate warriors killed in battle and used the plant's leaves and sap for medicinal purposes. Purple-red dyes extracted from the red bracts colored artwork, textiles, and cosmetics.
When the 17th-century Spanish Franciscan monks arrived in Mexico, they adopted the plant for the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a wintertime nativity procession. Around this time, the poinsettia cemented its role in Mexican Christmas lore through a story about a young girl with no money to buy a present for Jesus’ birthday festival. Being somewhat resourceful, she picked a bunch of weeds to lay at the church altar. According to legend, the weeds turned into gorgeous poinsettias and voilà! A tradition was born.
The first appointed U.S. minister (ambassador) to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, was also a noted plant nerd. When he encountered cuetlaxochitl in its wild form he propagated the plant and in 1825 gave specimens to friends and fellow botanists. Since then, through careful selection, the plant has evolved in shape, size, color, and texture to the plant it’s become today.
In 2002 Congress decreed December 12 as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate both the flower and its namesake’s death. As a bonus, the proclamation served as a nod to Mexican culture, as December 12 is also Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, a popular holiday during which the poinsettia is prominently displayed.
To date, there are well over 100 poinsettia cultivars, varying in color, size, and leaf shape.
Poinsettias come in various shades of red, pink, white, and even multicolor variations, and commercial and hobbyist breeding programs are constantly developing new varieties. If you’re a plant nerd, too, this might be the perfect species to tinker with.
A Profile of the Potted Poinsettia
Here’s how poinsettias measure up as potted plants, whether you keep them indoors year around or let them summer on your patio:
Plant height: 8” to 14” in containers
- Plant width: 8” to 12” wide
- Growth habit: Shrubby
- Flowers: A cluster of cup-shaped cyathia, tiny yellow/green male and female inflorescences. These are surrounded by leaf-shaped bracts, which can be cream, pink, or red.
- Bloom period: Upper bracts change color in November or December and often remain until late winter.
- Foliage: Euphorbia pulcherrima has deep green ovate to pinnate leaves which may be brighter in varieties with lighter-colored bracts.
- Sunlight: At least 6 hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day.
- Soil: Quality potting soil mix amended with peat moss.
- Temperature: Keep away from drafts, ideally between 60°F and 70°F.
- pH: 5.8 to 6.2
- Water: Let the top 1”-2” of soil dry out, then water generously. Don’t let plants wilt!
Poinsettias in the Garden
Potted poinsettias do well outside in most growing zones as long as the temperatures are in their ideal range, but If you live in zones 9 to 11, they can be a permanent highlight of your garden. Plant (or transplant) them in a location where they’ll get indirect sunlight for at least 6-8 hours each day, and give them a compost-rich, well-draining substrate. They’ll need plenty of room, too, as they can reach 8’ across and 15’ high if they’re not regularly pruned back.
Poinsettia Pests and Diseases
Poinsettias are susceptible to root rot, which is easily curtailed with well-draining soil. Outdoor plants can develop powdery mildew, often spurred on by low soil moisture and cool, humid nights. Poinsettia sap attracts aphids and whiteflies, so keep an eye out and remove them if they turn up.
The key to healthy, disease-resistant poinsettias is consistent watering, regular feeding, and keeping them in their ideal temperature range whether they live indoors or out.
How to Grow Poinsettias From Seed
Growing poinsettias from seed is easy, and a fun project for gardeners of every skill level. We recommend you plant your poinsettia seeds in individual 2” pots filled with a well-draining seedling mix augmented with a bit of peat moss.
- Seed preparation: None needed
- Sowing indoors: Out of direct sunlight, in a bright space with plenty of air circulation
- Seed depth: ¼”
- Days to germination: 7-14 days
- Days to maturity: Poinsettias bloom in their second winter.
Place your seed pots where there’s plenty of air circulation. They need bright, indirect light to thrive. Keep the soil moist, but don’t tent them with plastic as they’re prone to fungal diseases. We recommend using a spray bottle until the seedlings emerge, then watering from the bottom of the pot.
As your poinsettias grow, slowly step them up to larger pots. Mature plants generally live well in 6” to 8” containers. Giving them too much room puts them at a higher risk of root rot.
How to Extend the Life of Your Potted Poinsettias
It bums us out that after New Year’s Day, most commercially produced poinsettia plants get chucked into the trash or (somewhat less depressing) the compost bin. Poinsettias aren’t difficult to keep, and with a little care, they’ll rebloom the following year.
The first thing you do when you get it home is either discard the foil wrapping or cut out the bottom so the plant can drain properly. Feed your poinsettias an all-purpose plant fertilizer once a week during the holidays so they look their best.
Once the showy bracts drop, reduce feeding to once every 2-3 weeks and cut back a bit on watering. You’ll also cut back the plant, too, leaving only about 4-5 inches and a leaf or two on each stem. This is also a good time to trim down the central stem to keep the plant from getting leggy. Your goal is to create a rounded plant about 6” to 8” tall.
Keep the plant in indirect, bright sunlight, and in spring, you’ll see new growth, including vibrant new leaves. Once all danger of frost has passed, you can slowly harden them off to a shady spot outdoors for the warm seasons. Keep up with your feeding and watering schedule, and trim them as necessary to keep them from getting too scraggly.
To get the poinsettias to bloom again, bring them indoors in early October and keep them in a completely dark room for 14-16 hours during the night. If you don’t have a closet, cellar, or dungeon, a black plastic bag will do. This will trigger the plant to flower and turn its topmost bracts red (or pink or cream, depending on the variety.)
Increase feeding back to the weekly schedule, and keep them in a draft-free area with plenty of bright, indirect light. You should have stunning blooms and bracts in December!
Are You Sure Poinsettia Isn’t Toxic to Pets and People?
We’re sure! Just like those terror-inducing Halloween rumors that had us convinced that all our candy was tampered with, poinsettias have a bad rap. This is believed to have begun in the early 1900s when a kid who was probably already fatally sick (and weren’t they all?) happened to eat part of the plant, and then promptly keeled over. In 1971, researchers at Ohio State University decided to find out the truth. After feeding huge quantities of poinsettia parts to rats, they determined that poinsettias weren’t hazardous to mammals, and at worst, the sap may cause irritation to the skin, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract. And as we said earlier, poinsettias taste pretty nasty and it’s unlikely your kid, drunk uncle, or pet will forsake the shrimp dip for a novel new holiday salad.
Grow Your Own Poinsettias With Seed Needs
Some people like to make glitter-covered ornaments, knitted hot pads, or (gag) fruitcake to give each holiday season. You can do better by growing poinsettias from seed and gifting them to the plant lovers in your life. To learn more about growing poinsettias, or for ideas on excellent holiday gifts for your favorite gardener, contact us today!