In the next few weeks, garden centers and grocery stores will be filled with America’s favorite holiday plant, the poinsettia. Its timely crimson leaves are a hallmark of the season and embellish everything from clothing to U.S. Postal Service stamps. These plants are thoughtfully gifted to friends and loved ones around the holidays but often treated as disposable, like most seasonal decor. However, with a little care, these plants can easily and successfully be enjoyed all year round.
In the late 1820s, a Charleston native and U.S. ambassador, Joel Roberts Poinsett, traveled to Mexico on a diplomatic mission. Legend is that Poinsett came across the (now-called) poinsettia plant, likely in winter at a local market. Fascinated with horticulture, Poinsett sent clippings, seeds, and roots back to his greenhouses in South Carolina and to a well-known botanist friend in Philadelphia who was successful at cultivating the plant.
In 1829, this exotic plant made its debut at the first public show of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The plant’s popularity skyrocketed. It now is the most sold potted plant in the U.S. and Canada. In 2019, sales of poinsettias contributed over $170 million to the U.S. economy. It’s a huge economic driver for the six-week period leading up to Christmas.
Care for the long-run
The poinsettia, euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to tropical dry forests from Mexico to Guatemala. These forests are warm year-round and endure long spells without rain. Knowing a plant’s native environment is important to caring for it at home because it is up to plant parents to replicate natural conditions as much as possible for the health and longevity of the plant.
Light and temperature: Poinsettias will thrive in your home with roughly six hours of medium-bright indirect light. Don’t put them in a window where light intensity is high because the leaves can get burned and the soil dries out too quickly. Avoid drafty areas and vents as this plant prefers temperatures ranging between 55 and 70 degrees.
Watering: Stick your finger into the soil of your poinsettia. If the soil is dry up to your first knuckle, it’s time to water your plant. Bottom watering is the best way to hydrate the soil of these (and most) plants. Simply take the plant in it’s nursery pot or a pot that has a drainage hole and put it in a tray (or sink) with an inch or so of water. Let the plant’s roots soak up what it needs. You’ll know that the plant has been fully hydrated when the top of the soil is wet. Avoid overwatering by using the finger trick described above.
Fertilizing: Poinsettias can benefit from a little water-soluble fertilizer at every watering during the holiday season. This care regime can keep the crimson leaves of this plant vibrant and healthy until about March.
After the leaves fall
When the leaves begin to fall, cut back on watering and fertilizing. It is at this time that the plant is going into dormancy. Trim back the plant a bit, leaving about half of the buds. Your plant will go through a period of resembling sticks, but do not throw it out. This is part of its cycle. Water and fertilize when the soil is dry and come May you’ll start to see new growth. When the plant has many of its leaves (they’ll be green at this time) back, repot the plant in a well-drained pot that is one size up from its current size. This will encourage growth.
Anytime that night temperatures are consistently above 55 degrees, you can place your plant in a shady spot in the yard and enjoy it throughout the summer. To get the poinsettia to turn that crimson red again in time for the holidays, it will need a minimum of 14 hours of darkness each day. Place a bag over the plant at sunset and take it off the next day (14 hours later) or take it in and out the closet. By mid-November, the leaves will start turning red and you can start the care cycle over again and enjoy it for many seasons to come
Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100 percent American- and locally grown blooms. Online at roadsideblooms.com. 4610 Spruill Ave., Suite 102, North Charleston.