Reader Question: Poinsettias


Here is a question that I received from a reader regarding poinsettias:

Hi Stacey. I’m enjoying reading your blog but I haven’t seen any posts about poinsettias. I always buy them for the Christmas season but by New Years they look pitiful. I’m hoping that you can let me know what I’m doing wrong.

Carolyn in Pennsylvania

First of all, thank you Carolyn for taking the time to e-mail me. I enjoy helping gardeners (indoors or out) solve their problems. Before we discuss what may be happening with your poinsettias, let’s look closer at poinsettias as a whole.

The latin name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima. Looking at the latin name and knowing a few things about the Euphorbia genus, we can summise quite a bit about their preferred growing conditions. Euphorbias are a drought tolerant lot that originally hail from Mexico. Being native to Mexico, they prefer warm climates and are perennial in their native land and other areas where the temperatures stay above freezing year round. Members of the Euphorbia genus generally exude a milky white sap when the stem is cut or broken and this sap can cause a skin irritation in some people. And contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous…they may cause a tummy ache if you eat an entire plant or two, but in that case, you kind of deserve it.

The colorful part of the poinsettia is the bract, which is a type of modified leaf. Many people think they are the flowers but the flowers are actually borne in small clusters in the center of the plant. When the plant’s flowers have shed their yellow pollen, the colorful bracts will drop off and as a result, you’ll end up with an average looking plant with only green leaves. It’s interesting to note that poinsettias are “short day” plants which mean that they will initiate flower buds when the days are shorter than the nights…this occurs naturally when we pass the autumnal equinox which occurs around September 21 each year.

So Carolyn, back to your question of how to keep poinsettias looking great past the Christmas season. The primary problem with poinsettias and most houseplants, is watering. Some people tend to kill their plants with kindness by watering them too much…others tend to treat them more like a cactus and never water them. The problem is that both over and underwatering produce the same symptoms of wilted, unhealthy plants. The key to watering poinsettias is to let them dry out between waterings but not to the point that they wilt. If you have your poinsettias in the metallic colored pot wrap that they came in, be sure to remove the wrap when watering it. Otherwise, you’ll end up creating a little pool for the poinsettia’s roots and they won’t find it very amusing. If you’ve repotted your poinsettia or sat it inside a more decorative container, make sure that it isn’t standing in water when you’ve finished with the watering can.

Poinsettias are much like frail little elderly ladies when it comes to breezes and drafts…they prefer to avoid them. While Aunt Bessie can shuffle over to another area of the room if the draft bothers her, your poinsettia obviously can’t. Its way of dealing with this problem is to go into self-preservation mode and drop its leaves to wait for better conditions to come along. If those conditions don’t manifest themselves, then you can say bye-bye to your beloved poinsettia. Try to avoid really hot and dry areas of the house as well. Woodstoves and radiators are the dreaded, mortal enemies of the long-lived poinsettia. The humidity is just too low and the plants soon succumb to the dry heat. If you can pick another area for the poinsettia to show its beauty, you should be able to keep the plants thriving past New Years. If you were creating a little microclimate just for your poinsettias, they would prefer daytime temperatures of 60° to 70° and nighttime temperatures of 55°. They would also enjoy six hours of indirect but bright light. Often times, kitchens can provide just the right amount of heat, humidity, light and nighttime coolness to keep poinsettias in their own little happy land.

If you are successful in keeping your plants alive and kicking past the holidays, fertilize them once a month or better yet, topdress them with a little compost. Carolyn, I hope that I’ve fully answered your question. If you or anyone else have any other questions regarding poinsettias, please leave them in the comment section below or e-mail me at Happy indoor gardening!

December 15, 2011Permalink Leave a comment

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…


Well Thanksgiving is over and the next thought in many people’s mind is to decorate their Christmas tree. Are you one of the estimated 25 to 30 million people who will purchase a live Christmas tree this year to display in your home? If so, let’s look for a moment at the history of how we decided that it was a smart idea to put a tree in our house and what we can do to ensure that we don’t have a brown, needle-less Charlie Brown tree on Christmas morning.

There is much debate about whether the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, although most historians agree that it was. In order to not cause controversy, I’ll abstain from placing emphasis on this debate and instead focus on the history of the Christmas tree in the United States. It is believed that Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War were the first to introduce the idea of a Christmas tree to the colonies. The idea didn’t particulary catch on until Charles Minnegerode decorated an evergreen tree in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first Christmas tree lot was opened in New York in 1851 and the rest is history.

There are many types of trees available but by far the most popular are the the Frasier fir and pine. Frasier fir have a deep green, stiff appearance whereas pines are lighter green and softer to the touch. It’s a matter of personal preference as to which you choose but keep these thoughts in mind as you select your tree:

  • Make sure you know the height of your ceiling before you head out…this may sound like common sense but if you have a vaulted ceiling, make sure you know the height first
  • If you are going to a Christmas tree lot, ask the attendant when the tree was cut because obviously, fresh is best
  • Look for any needle drop…it’s natural for the tree to lose some of its interior needles but you don’t want your tree losing any more needles than that
  • Pull a couple of branches through your hand…you shouldn’t end up with a handful of needles when you’re finished


Once you get the tree home, follow these simple tips:

  • Make a fresh cut 1/2″ thick at the base of the tree to ensure that the tree can take up water
  • Make sure that your tree stand can hold enough water to keep the tree alive…you’ll need at least a gallon for the average size tree
  • Keep your tree out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat like fireplaces and heating vents
  • Check your tree stand daily to make sure that there is enough water to sustain the tree
  • Some experts say that all you need is water in your tree stand to keep your tree from browning out early but others believe that you can prolong the life of your tree by adding a few simple ingredients. Andre Viette, a renowned plantsman, uses a mix of Karo syrup, Epsom salt and Clorox to keep his trees alive longer. Check out his website for his recipe.


After the kids have unwrapped their presents and the yuletide joy is over, you have to think about what you are going to do with your tree. If you are fortunate enough to have a pond or know of someone who does, you can chuck your tree into the pond (undecorated of course!) as it makes a great area for fish to seek shelter. Another option is to dispose of it in your woods and allow it to compost naturally; the birds and other small game will appreciate the shelter from the winter weather. If you’re in a subdivision the above options are out of the question, but fortunately most localities have a Christmas tree recycling program. There’s no sense in cluttering up the landfills with leftover Christmas trees when they can be shredded and turned into mulch and compost.

Or, if you’re like me, you can put up an artificial tree and enjoy decorating it with the family. Whether you choose to buy a live Christmas tree or put up an artificial one, the real joy is the time you spend with your loved ones, recalling where each ornament came from or the significance of them. I’d love to hear your stories of decorating your tree…send them to Happy decorating!

November 29, 2011Permalink Leave a comment