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‘Tis the season for the festive poinsettia

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Nov 23, 2021

A colorful poinsettia in bloom. Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS

What plant makes you think immediately of Christmas? I’m confident that you answered the poinsettia, which adorns our homes, holiday cards, wrapping paper and even our postage stamps during the holiday season.

The poinsettia is the second largest-selling flowering plant in the country (orchids are the number one seller), with annual sales of 70 million plants per year and total sales revenues of $250 million.

How did this beautiful plant that originated in Mexico come to be so closely associated with Christmas? The story is fascinating!

The botanical name for poinsettias is Euphorbia pulcherrima which translates to “very beautiful.” According to an old Mexican legend, a young girl named Pepita was saddened because she was too poor to purchase a gift to donate for the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. Her cousin stated that any gift would be appreciated, and an angel instructed Pepita to pick some weeds along the roadside as an offering. As Pepita left the weeds at the manger, they were transformed into the beautiful red blooms we enjoy today. In Mexico, the poinsettia is still known as the “Flor de Nochebuena” or Christmas Eve Flower.

The plant is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was a botanist and the first U.S. Minister to Mexico. He sent plants that were known as “Mexican Flame Flowers” from Mexico to his greenhouses in South Carolina, where they gained popularity in the U.S. In 2001, Congress created National Poinsettia Day on Dec. 12 to honor Poinsett, who passed away on Dec. 12, 1851.

Poinsettias. UF/IFAS

Today most poinsettias are grown in Latin America, using grafting techniques to make the plants fuller and more compact that were developed in the early 1900s in Los Angeles by Albert Ecke, a German immigrant. The third generation of Eckes are probably most responsible for the popularity of poinsettias at Christmas; they provided free plants at Thanksgiving to television stations for display through Christmas and appeared on popular television shows such as “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to promote their plants.

Poinsettias are no longer strictly red; more than 100 varieties of poinsettias are available today in pink, white, yellow, purple, salmon and multi-colors. The colorful “petals” we consider as the flower of the poinsettia are actually modified leaves called “bracts,” designed to attract pollinators to the small and inconspicuous actual flower at the center of the bracts. In the past poinsettia bracts dropped off if the plant was kept indoors for more than a few days, but new cultivars retain their foliage indoors. You should keep poinsettias in an area with bright, indirect for 6 hours per day, away from drafts or excessive heat. The plant should be watered only when the soil surface is dry to the touch; avoid watering too frequently or allowing the plant to sit in water.

Here in Southwest Florida, we don’t have to hurry home as we did in northern climates with our poinsettias carefully shielded from cold temperatures and wind by plastic sleeves – we can actually place these beautiful plants outdoors in our gardens! Once you have enjoyed your poinsettia indoors during the holiday season, plants that have retained some green healthy leaves can be planted in well-drained soil in a sunny spot in your garden that does not receive artificial light at night (even brief exposure to artificial light sources at night can delay or prevent flowering). Cut off any fading bracts and leave 4-6 inches of stem with as many green leaves attached as possible. The plant should be placed in the ground at the same depth it was growing in the pot.

You should fertilize your poinsettias monthly from March to October, using a fertilizer with balanced amounts of nitrogen and potassium (the first and third numbers in the formula) and low phosphorus (the middle number). If you don’t prune your plant regularly during the growing season, it can become “leggy” and produce less flowerheads; you can prune as often as monthly, making sure to leave at least four leaves on each shoot.

Discontinue pruning in early September, as flower buds begin development in October in response to shorter days and lower temperatures. If you decide to keep your poinsettia in a pot outdoors, you should follow the same directions but bring your plant inside around Labor Day. Keep the plant in complete darkness (i.e. in a closet) for at least 13-14 hours each day and in bright light for the remainder of the day. In about 2 months your poinsettia will be in colorful bloom and ready for the holiday season!

Poinsettias are a beautiful expression of the holiday season, and in Southwest Florida they can be a year-round part of your landscape. If treated properly outdoors, you can enjoy the Christmas cheer of these festive plants in your gardens for many years.

You can find more information on poinsettias and their care on the University of Florida website: at https://sfyl.ifas. ufl.edu/lawn-and-garden/poinsettias/

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member