Poinsettia:Everything YouNeed To Know
There are not many plants you can name that scream Christmas more than the poinsettia. Every festive season they are bought by millions of us in the UK and it’s not hard to see why. This stunning bloom of large red flowers (well, technically they’re leaves) are perfect for bringing some festive joy into the house.
Flowering throughout December and into January, the poinsettia symbolises good cheer and success, with the plant said to bring wishes of mirth and celebration – perfect for a seasonal gift. Unsurprisingly they are also the birth flower for December. If you’re stuck for a present idea, why not try one of the other coloured varieties such as the white or pink version.
If you’ve only recently discovered the festive vibes of the poinsettia then let us give you the low down on this most Christmassy of houseplants.
The Christmas Poinsettia
First, its history. Native to Mexico this plant was put to good use by the ancient Aztecs, with the red from the flowers used for making dye and the sap was said to control fevers.
So how did the poinsettia end up on in our houses all the way from sunny Mexico? For that, we have a South Carolina congressman to thank whose name was Joel Roberts Poinsett (can you guess how the plant got its name?) As an avid botanist, Joel took some cuttings of the plant he found in Mexico and sent it on to some of his botanist friends to develop into the bushier plant we recognise today.
After that its popularity just grew and grew. In fact, it’s so popular approximately 8 million poinsettias are sold every year in the UK. This plant is so well known, it has its own National Day to celebrate it; National Poinsettia Day on 12th December each year (the date taken from the day Poinsett died).
In Mexico the poinsettia plant is appropriately called Flor de Nochebuena, which can be directly translated as Christmas Eve Plant. However, if the rumours are to be believed, then the poinsettia’s history and its connection to Christmas goes back to a much earlier time (although its legend has been slightly muddled).
Some say that it was first used as a Christmas decoration when in 1600s the Franciscan priests in southern Mexico used the colourful leaves to adorn their nativity scenes. Another old Mexican legend states that a young girl named Pepita was upset that she didn’t have a gift to leave for the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve service, and with no money to buy a gift, the girl picked a bouquet of weeds on her way to church. When she left them at the nativity scene, they suddenly transformed into the beautiful red flowers of the poinsettia plant.
Whatever its history one thing is true, this plant is all about Christmas. In fact, some say that the shape of its flowers and leaves symbolise the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men to Jesus while the red version symbolises the blood of Christ and the white his purity.
The poinsettia is a pretty easy plant to look after as long as you get the basics right – but you will have to excuse it for having a few demands, after all it does come from a warm climate.
Place your poinsettia in a bright spot but keep it out of direct sunlight; too much light and it might burn the leaves, too little and the flowers could drop.
This plant is incredibly sensitive to how warm or cold it is. You want to try and create an even, minimum temperature of about 14°C. They also won’t like it if placed somewhere it can feel a draught – so not near any open doors or windows! If the leaves start to drop off, then it’s probably too cold – find somewhere warmer!
You only want to water the poinsettia when the surface of the compost feels noticeably dry, even then only give it a little drink each time. If you’re not sure, then the best method is to place the plant in a bowl of room temperature water and let it drink up what it needs. Take it out and let it drain off before putting it back in pride of place. If the leaves are wilting or yellowing, then you’ve probably been giving it too much to drink.
To keep the flowers looking at their best you’re going to need to give it some humidity to mimic the tropical climate of Mexico. It’s incredibly easy! All you need to do is generously spray the leaves of the plant with some room temperature water, using a bottle that has a fine misting nozzle on the top.
The poinsettia is a happy plant as long as it hasn’t got too cold, too much direct light or the wrong amount of water. To keep your blooms going throughout the festive season you need your new plant to be in a good condition. You can check your plant by looking at the yellow buds in the centre of the red leaves (these are the actual flowers on the plant). If they still look in good condition, then the plant is a happy one.
Repotting a Poinsettia
Like the poor Christmas Tree, a lot of poinsettia are thrown away at the end of the festive season. But did you know it is possible to keep your plant going and get new red flowers to appear when December comes around again? Ok, we’re not going to lie this is not a challenge for the faint-hearted, but it’s a rewarding task to get you in the festive spirit.
As soon as Christmas has ended, start feeding your poinsettia with a liquid plant food that is high in potassium – you’re looking for something like a tomato food here. Keep up the maintenance – somewhere warm, out of draughts and water when the soil feels dry.
With April comes Easter, which is a sign of new beginnings, so it’s also the perfect time for the first big change. You want to cut back the stems of your poinsettia plant so that they only sit about 10cm above the soil – it looks pretty extreme, but it is needed. When it gets to May it’s time for a new home (don’t worry you don’t have to move, your poinsettia just needs some fresh soil). Find yourself a slightly larger pot (about 5-10cm should do the trick) and fill it about a third full with fresh, peat-free, loam-based compost. Place the poinsettia into its new home and fill up around the sides until its sitting snug and secure. Don’t forget to give it a water if the soil feels dry.
Getting the poinsettia to grow back with bushy green foliage is the easy part. The challenging bit is getting those green leaves to turn into the festive flowers we know and love. In the wild the plant will naturally turn red as the amount of daylight decreases over winter so you will have to recreate these conditions to encourage the colour to come through. It will take about eight to ten weeks to happen, so from the beginning of November keep your plant in a dark cupboard for 12 hours each day – it seems harsh, but it will be worth it!
Propagating your Poinsettia Plant
If you want to create some new plants from your original one, then you can try propagating it. In May, you need to take some of the new growth tips that should appear. Once the softwood shoots are about 10cm long, cut them and repot them in a smaller container using growing compost. Just make sure you wear gloves – the plant is not toxic but when cut the stems produce a milky sap that can irritate the skin.
Poinsettia as Cut Flowers
So, you’ve got your poinsettia growing in pride of place, but did you know that there are lots of other ways you can use this versatile plant as a festive decoration?
Why not try a whole row of poinsettia in pots down the centre of your table when you sit down for your Christmas meal? Just remember to get the miniature version or you may struggle to see your guests! Mix it up with some poinsettia plants in different colours, berries and sprigs of green foliage and pine cones to create a really eye-catching display.
If you’ve got some spare miniature poinsettia, why not get a bit creative by making some hanging decorations for your Christmas tree. You will need a plastic cone with some holes punched into the pot just below the rim (you’ll put some ribbon through these for hanging on the branches). Fill the bottom with some soil and place your plant into the container. Securely pack in some soil around the edges and then hang on the tree. You could also decorate the pot with some festive designs. Just remember to water more frequently than your bigger plant pots!
Alternatively, if you can find some suitable glass containers - something like a test tube or a hanging tea light holder should work - put a cut poinsettia flower into the vase and hang from a branch. A cut flower should last about two weeks if you run the stem under cold water before putting in the vase.
If you want to keep the magic of the poinsettia flowers going, try pressing them to create a dried version – they’re perfect for decorations or in a Christmas wreath. You can do this by placing the delicate petals between some blotting paper and then place between a pile of heavy books (be warned the moisture from the plants could ruin the book). Alternatively, you could buy a flower press kit which will have everything you need. You will need to change the blotting paper every few days to speed up the process. It will take a few weeks for the flowers to dry out fully.
Are Poinsettia Safe For Pets?
The milky sap in the stems of this plant is mildly toxic to cats and dogs and if eaten can cause drooling, diarrhoea and vomiting. It would have to be eaten in quite large quantities for it to cause any serious harm, but we still recommend keeping them out of reach from your furry friends.