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I seriously cannot believe it is December! It is time to start decorating for the holidays which includes the poinsettia. The poinsettia has been a fixture in American homes as a holiday decoration for as long as most of us can remember. I think it is fair to say that it is considered the ‘official’ Christmas flower. In fact the U.S. Census Bureau says that over 75 million plants were sold last holiday season!
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and has been recognized for its beauty and function for centuries. The Aztec cultivated it for medicinal and household purposes. From the leaves a red dye was made; and from the woody stem oozed a milky sap that reduced fever. In the 17th century Franciscan priests living in Mexico used the brightly colored foliage of the plant to decorate Nativity processionals (it was the only thing blooming that time of the year) which seems to be its first association with Christmas.
The poinsettia was brought to the U.S. by Joel Poinsett, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, in 1825. By the early 1900’s the plant was being grown in the U.S. as an ornamental in temperate zones. It is here that the fate of the poinsettia was determined. A German immigrant, Albert Ecke, sold these tall, leggy plants as cut flowers on the streets of Hollywood, California. When Ecke’s son, Paul, took over the business he began developing varieties of poinsettia that were better suited to containers and greenhouses. By the 1960’s the Eckes had developed the poinsettia that we know today, with stronger branching and longer lasting blooms and foliage color. Plus, Paul would deliver them to television stations which would use them as set decorations...this really was an ingenious marketing tool bringing the poinsettia into America’s living room literally and figuratively.
The new cultivars that are available today are longer-lived then the poinsettias that my Grandma bought a couple of days before Christmas and tossed out the day after. Today they can endure for over a month with the right care. The goal, as with any plant we bring indoors, is to duplicate the native growing environment. In this case it is a greenhouse so the best we can do is to provide adequate light and moisture.
Poinsettias like bright light (preferably with a little direct sunlight for about an hour because this helps them keep their true color.) Ideal temperatures range from about 70 during the day and 60 at night which is close to what many people keep their thermostats on during the winter. Avoid cold drafts and take care when you transport them home after purchase because they do not respond well to cold temperatures.
If your poinsettia begins to lose leaves and wilt it’s likely due to low light levels and not enough or too much water. Water the plants just as the top dries out. You don’t want them to completely dry out...they may not recover; and over-watering is just as bad. Since most are sold with colorful foil around the pot I recommend taking the plant to the sink, removing the foil and watering thoroughly and letting the water drain completely.
How do you pick out the freshest poinsettia? Here are some things to take note of: crispness, color and bloom. Check to make sure that there are leaves on the entire stem. The foliage should be firm, crisp and uniform in shape and color (unless you are purchasing a cultivar that has swirled colors!) And the flower buds should be closed. Remember that the poinsettia “flowers” are really modified leaves; the actual flowers are the tiny yellow specks in the center of the plant. When you make your purchase, however, pick plants that have unopened buds that look like little green beads. If you pick those that are already flowering they are past their peak.