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