When one thinks about Christmas there are two icons that come to mind beyond Saint Claus and these are the Christmas tree and the poinsettia. While the story of the Christmas tree originated in Germany, the story of the poinsettia entailed a unique meeting between a country and its American ambassador.
The story begins with Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the ambassador to Mexico. While holding this position, Mr. Poinsett explored his surroundings and discovered a beautiful plant. Once his term was up, he brought back samples of the poinsettia to his South Carolina plantation. While at the plantation, Mr. Poinsett developed techniques for propagating poinsettias. Many of his early plants were given to friends and family.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was instrumental in the production of poinsettias and in doing so has a day named after him. Poinsettia Day, which occurs on December 12, celebrates not only a plant but also the death of its founder who died in 1851.
The story of the poinsettia does not start with seeds but instead starts with cuttings. The reason for this is because poinsettias are very hard to start from seed.
All of today’s poinsettias were started from cuttings that were harvested from mature plants in May. These cuttings are then dipped into a rooting hormone and placed in a flat of moist soil. The prepared cuttings are then placed on a misting bench until rooted.
After the cuttings have rooted, they are then move into individual six-inch pots. These pots are then placed in a greenhouse where they are watered and fertilized.
Around October 1, the poinsettia is prepared for “blooming.’ What few people realize is the change in leaf color is not a “bloom.” The “true bloom” of the poinsettia is actually the little yellow beads that are on the top of each stalk. The blooming occurs when the amount of sunlight is decreased and in the United States this has to be done artificially.
To force ones poinsettia to “bloom” one must first expose it to 12 hours of complete darkness and 12 hours of light. This can be a challenge since even the light from a pin light can cause a plant to delay “blooming.” To aid in this endeavor, one must put their poinsettia in a black plastic bag. During the evening hours, simply pull the bag up around the plant and tie off. This will block any amount of light. In the morning, simply untie the bag, roll it down, and let the plant bask in the sunlight. Continue with this process until the first of November. When this time occurs, remove the plant completely from the black bag and place in a sunny room that is kept at 60 to 70 degrees F.
If you are purchasing a poinsettia, keep in mind that there are a few things one needs to do and look for. The first thing is whether the plant is healthy or not. A plant that is dropping its leaves or one whose leaves are brown and shrived up are not good choices. These plants are diseased or have been neglected too long.
Next, one needs to look at the “true blooms.” If the little yellow beads are open, then the plant quality of the plant is decreased. A plant with closed beads will provide a more quality plant whose beauty will be extended.
The last item that one needs to consider is the color of the leaves. Poinsettias, by nature, are red, white or pink. While other colors and finishes exist, they are artificial in nature and cause the leaves treated to die prematurely.
After you have selected the best plant, it is time to take it home. Make sure that your plant is wrapped up in a bag and only place it in a warm car. Poinsettias cannot take the cold and normally do not recover very well from cold exposure. Avoid placing your poinsettia in front of the heater in the car. This will also have a negative affect on your poinsettia.
Once you get it home, remove it from the bag and place it in a sunny location. Also, try to make this location in a room that is kept 60 to 70 degrees F. Check the soil moisture, if the soil is dry one must either remove the plant from its decorative foil sleeve or poke holes in the bottom of the foil sleeve prior to watering. Poinsettias do not like to sit in water and keeping it in the foil sleeve without holes creates a problem.
After the container has been prepared, water the plant until moisture is seen coming out of the bottom.
If one notices their plant is beginning to turn a light green, just increase the amount of sunlight the plant is receiving. Once the season is over though there is no reason to dispose of the plant. Instead, consider growing it just like you would any other houseplant.
Poinsettias can be place outside when the danger of a frost has passed in your local area. The plant can be left in its container or it can be planted in the ground as an annual landscape plant or accent plant.
Prune the plant back during this time so that it has a nice oval shape. When shaping ones poinsettia though, always use hand pruners and make the cuts at an angle. The angle will prevent water from pooling on the stems and causing the stems to rot.
The cutting that you have taken from your poinsettia can also be used to create new plants. To do this, simply dip the cutting into water and then dip into a rooting hormone or honey. Place the prepared cutting into a container of soil and care for as described previously.
The only other maintenance that poinsettias require when they are outside is fertilizing. This can be done every two to three weeks with an all-purpose fertilizer.
The poinsettia will need to be brought back indoors before a killing frost hits the gardener’s local area. Before moving indoor, always check for pests and whether the plant needs to be repotted.
Throughout the poinsettia process, gardeners need to keep in mind the toxicity of the plant. The white sap that pours out of the stem when it is cut or damaged is dangerous to pets, especially cats. But a recent study showed the toxicity level is not enough to cause death under normal circumstances. As a responsible pet owner, do not take the chance and always place your plant out of the reach of your pet whether it is inside or out.
If your pet begins to act differently after you have brought your poinsettia home, do not delay contacting the ASPCA National Poison Control Center and/or your veterinarian as soon as possible.
So this year, welcome the holidays with a beautiful, healthy poinsettia and make a toast to Mr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the father of the poinsettia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.