Christmas Countdown - Day 12 - Prolific Poinsettias

2 min to read

Poinsettias have been part of Christmas since the 16th century.  According to legend, a  poor young Mexican girl, named Maria, was told by Angels to gather poinsettia plans and place them in the church.  They soon turned red. 

The recounting of this tale by author Tomie DePaola, The Legend of the Poinsettia, should be included in your collection of children’s Christmas books.

Children's Christmas books

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, is credited with introducing the poinsettia to the Americans, in the 1820s.  In honour of Poinsett, December 12th is recognized as National Poinsettia Day in the US, who died on this day in 1851.

There is more  Americanization of this plant.
The Ecke family, living in Los Angeles, started to sell the poinsettia in the early 1900s,and developed grafting techniques (that were secret until 1990) to make them more appealing.  As a marketing scheme, free plants were sent to the early television shows, The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials, and now everyone wants them! Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the US and Canada!

Poinsettias grow wild in Central America, in deciduous tropical forests, at moderate elevations.
Ancient Aztecs cultivated this plant for use in traditional medicines to reduce fever, and for red dye.

Here is a picture I took of one in El Salvador in front of a synagogue.

Poinsettia  bush in El Salvador

These plants can grow to be big bushes but the red leaves are narrower than in the cultivars.
The red leaves are not technically the flowers but are bracts.  The real flowers of this plant are the miniscule yellow parts in the middle.

Poinsettia flower

Although usually red there are varieties that are cream, lemon, peach and pink, and some with white and gold-splashed leaves.

As is so often the case, this plant, in its natural habitat, is in decline, due to deforestation.

It is commonly believed that poinsettias are poisonous, including for pets.  This has been refuted.  One study fed 500 poinsettia leaves (bracts) to rats and they were fine. The stems produce a sap that can be an irritant particularly those with latex allergies.

If you have one of these million of poinsettias they should bloom nicely for a couple of months.  They need about five hours of indirect sunlight a day.  Do not let the poinsettia experience a cold draft or don’t let it touch a cold window. Keep the soil moist but do not let the bottom of the plant sit in water.  Such stresses cause them to lose their leaves before Christmas.This has happened to me several times and I feel terrible.  I have learned that putting them front of the fireplace, with its draft, is not a good idea.

A poinsettia plant can be kept alive, and it can be made to bloom again next year.  This does require paying attention to it but if we’re still in this pandemic time it might be a good distraction. Here is a quick summary of what is needed to re-bloom your poinsettia.  Click HERE for a more comprehensive outline

  • Jan to April  - water when soil feels dry. Fertilize (all-purpose houseplant) every 6 to 8 weeks,
  • April to May – stop watering it and let dry out but not completely.  Put in cool (about 16c) and airy place
  • June – (when bracts turn muddy green colour) trim stems to 15 to 20 cms. Start watering  Consider transferring to a bigger pot, using soil with peat moss.
  • July and August – move pot outdoors in shade, watering and fertilizing.
  • September – move indoors and place near window with lots of light. Keep watering and now fertilize every 2 weeks.
  • October  and November – put a box over it from 6 pm to 8 am. (14 hours of darkness required)
  • December – voila!! It blooms red again.