We’ve all done it. It’s the holiday season and a last-minute party invite (at your boyfriend's mother's house, no less) has left you scrambling for hostess gift ideas. Then it hits you: Your local grocery store most likely has a large display of poinsettia plants, conveniently located near the entrance. The bright leaves say “Christmas!” The tinselly foil on the pots says, “Festive!” So, because Southerners just don’t show up at someone's house empty-handed, you scoop up a plant and present it proudly to Mrs. Whatever-her-name-is.
That’s great. You’ve done your guestly duty. But as the daughter of a mother with the blackest of thumbs, I remember one year when we ended up with an astounding six poinsettia plants. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not trying to discourage you from giving them as gifts–but in order to avoid what my mom did (she promptly killed all of the plants), we’ve rounded up some tips on how to care for that plant (or plants) that your son’s girlfriend/co-worker/dogwalker gave you.
Poinsettias are part of a huge family of plants known collectively as Euphorbia. Poinsettia are Euphorbia pulcherrima, which translates roughly to ‘the fairest,’ and it’s easy to see why. The large, often crimson (but sometimes pink or white) leaves that surround the small, yellow flowers are some of the most attractive seasonal foliage.
In order to make sure that your bright plants don’t die, there are just a few simple things to remember:
- First, take the foil off of the plant so that it can drain. Place it on a saucer or plate. Then, you’ll want to keep the soil moist. But don’t overwater! You don’t want standing water in your plant saucer.
- Next, make sure you keep your new plant in a steadily cool but well-lit room. Most modern poinsettia selections will keep their bright foliage until spring if they are given enough light. Selections with lighter leaves tend to last the longest.
- Though we often don’t think of them as such, poinsettias do make pretty cut flowers. If you do decide to cut your blooms, sear the ends with a candle after cutting; this prevents the sap from escaping–the sap is what keeps the flower from drooping. Once cut, you’ll want to make sure to check the water level frequently as poinsettias are quite thirsty in the vase. A floral preservative can help prolong the life of your arrangement.
- After the last frost, cut the plant back to two buds and set out in your garden beds. Alternatively, you can keep them in pots or containers in a sunny spot on the patio. Whichever you decide to do, make sure that the plants get well-drained soil and full sun.
If you live in the Tropical South, this makes a great informal shrub, as it needs no special care. In the Coastal South, the plant is likely to die down in the winter. When the leaves start to show color, feed the plant every two weeks with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer; this will help to improve the color. Chances are, your plant will grow too tall (this Central American shrub can grow up to twelve feet tall!) to use next year, but you can start new plants by taking late summer cuttings. Use stems with four or five joints or eyes.
- Finally, if you do make new poinsettia plants, and you want them to bloom for Christmas, they need to experience a long night. Starting in October, put plants in a closet or other place with no light for fourteen hours per day. Move them into light in the morning, but make sure that they don’t get any more than ten hours. Continue this for ten weeks, and you’ll have very merry poinsettias by Christmas–maybe you’d like to give one as a gift?