Introduction to Poinsettias
Poinsettias, those ubiquitous Christmas decorations, are flowering plants native to parts of Mexico and Guatemala. Poinsettias are named for the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, who first brought the plant to the United States in 1825. The plants have many poetic alternative names, including Christmas stars, Ataturk's Flowers, Mexican Flame Leaves, Winter Roses, and Noche Buenas.
The pairing of poinsettias with the Christmas season is explained by a Mexican legend. The legend states a small child who was too poor to bring a gift to Christ on Christmas Eve stopped to pick some weeds from the roadside. The child had been told that any gift, no matter how humble, would be pleasing to God if it was offered in love. When the weeds were brought by the child into the church, they transformed into beautiful poinsettias.
Regardless of the origins, the tradition of poinsettias as Christmas flowers continues, accounting for over 85% of all potted plant sales during the Christmas holiday season. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are a safe holiday decoration even around children and pets, as the plants are actually not poisonous.
Ranging in size from 2 foot (0.6 m) shrubs to 16 foot (4 m) trees, poinsettias are flowering plants. However, there tends to confusion about which part of the plant is the actual flower. All except the top leaves of the poinsettia plant are dark green. The bracts, or top layer of leaves are often mistaken as the plant's flowers. These bracts range from white to pink to bright red. The plant's actual flowers are unobtrusive yellow flowers, lacking in petals, found in the very center of the bunches of leaves.
In the wild, poinsettias grow down the Pacific Coast's tropical forests in Mexico and Guatemala. Farther inland, the plants are also found in the dry forests of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero. When poinsettias are grown outside of its natural environment, they are usually grown indoors. Poinsettias have a very limited temperature range in which they can grow: they do best in temperatures above 50° F (10° C), and below 70° F (21° C).
In most of the 109 varieties of poinsettias, the plant's bracts are red, but they can also be white, pink, or less commonly orange, cream, pale green, or marbled in color. When buying a poinsettia, you should look for plants with bracts that are fully colored, and not still green around the edges. Poinsettias with no signs of wilting, but with full, dense, dark green leaves all the way down the plant are healthy plants which should continue to thrive if properly cared for.
Poinsettias are temperamental plants which need careful nurturing. They should be watered if the soil feels dry, but should never have standing water in their pot, which can cause root rot. Indirect, not direct, sunlight is necessary for at least six hours per day, and the plants grow best in room temperature environments, without excessive heat or drafts. Poinsettias can be fertilized, but only after the blooming season is over.
Many people get frustrated when their poinsettias begin to look wilted after Christmas. This is because the bracts begin to age and look less vibrant. However, there is no need to throw away the plants — re-blooming the poinsettias is possible, although meticulous care is needed. Continue watering your poinsettia when the soil feels dry. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, cut your poinsettia down to eight inches (20 cm), and begin fertilizing the plant late March, or early April. As long as there is no risk of frost, the plant can be moved outside to enjoy the warmth of late spring and summer. Keep fertilizing the plants every two or three weeks, and maintain a regular watering schedule.
During the summer, keep the poinsettias in indirect sun, fertilize and water regularly, and prune the plant if it is needed. Do not prune poinsettias any later than the beginning of September. During the summer, you can transplant your poinsettia into a larger pot if it is needed. Beginning in October, poinsettias must be kept in complete darkness for around 14 hours each night. This is because the plants only re-bloom when signaled by the lengthening nights. During this time, they will also need warm temperatures and indirect sunlight for six to eight hours per day. If all of these steps are followed, the plant should have vibrant color again for the Christmas season.
Written by Bronwyn Harris
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