Well, I consider it our traditional holiday plant. It has been growing in the states since 1825 when botanist Dr. Joel Poinsett introduced this colorful Mexican native to us during his service as the U.S. Minister to Mexico.
The plant at that time had a much smaller leaf and flower form. As usual, when it became Americanized it ended up bigger and better. That is what we do.
There are about 100 verities being grown now, mostly in California. The color
range has grown from mainly a splash of red to over a dozen leaves of several shades of red as well as pinks and variegated and subtle splashes of pastels to vibrant reds with splashes of white on the leaves, such as the flashy and adorable Jingle Bells.
We should note here that all the brilliant leaves on this plant, Poinsettia Euphorbia Pulcherrima, are not the actual flowers. The small colored bracts in the center are the actual flowers. When you purchase a plant check to see that these bracts look firm and fresh. Pick through the plants and make sure the leaves are fresh looking and do not have a droopy look. Yes, a good watering followed by a good drain will freshen up the plant, however, who knows how long that droopy plant has been droopy. At home, if you forget proper watering and draining, you do know that it has not been days of neglect. I hope. No cold drafts, temperature over 50 degrees.
The dry climate conditions we will be enduring for the next few months catch a lot of gardeners by surprise. A weekly watering period suddenly turns into a three-day event. The sun is not blazing hot, but the air is dry and the wind blows more and we cannot depend on any measurable rainfall.
The type of water does not matter, well, sprinkler or rain barrel water is OK.
However, do not water the colorful leaves, just the soil when the top of soil is dry. An occasional rain shower will not harm plants unless they are under the downspout.
Place the plant in bright sunlight, not out in the bright sun. I do place a pot
or two in some sun if I am having company and need to spread some color around. I also get them back out of that sun as soon as possible.
A major mistake people make with a poinsettia is to leave it in its pretty foil paper. Looks great. However when you water the plant, all the water that should be draining out will stay in the foil and that means your plant roots are setting in a pond. You do not want even a little pond down there.
I either take it out completely and put it in a clay pot, sink it and all in a
large container, or just poke a hole or two in that foil and place it on a clay potholder or a pretty little saucer from the second hand store.
I do not recommend a flowery or heavily decorated container because the plant is the focus with a poinsettia, not the container. Mini plants can be everywhere you want a splash of color, planted in soil or just sink in pots.
They can do well anywhere. Inside the house, on the lanai, at the front door or just placed out into the garden for some holiday color here and there.
You can place it in a large container and surround it with some green trailing ivy. The plain green or variegated ivies do not seem to be a distraction and will not need any more water or fertilizing than the poinsettia. It can be left in pot.
I should also say, do not fertilize your poinsettia while it is blooming. When its time is up and it is getting leggy and looking droopy, you can do a light fertilizing and trim it of weak stems and then place it in the background of some other plantings. The leggy look can be hidden by other plants but the bright colors of the leaves will look great in the background.
When you are trimming around your plant you will immediately notice that a white milky sap will ooze out of the cut. This is not poisonous, however, for a person who is allergic to latex, beware. This may cause a rash or be more of a serious problem. Always wash your hands and keep your eyes safe.
The entire plant is NOT poisonous. If you were to eat a dozen plant leaves you would probably have some indigestion problems, however they are not a tasty
treat so it is unlikely anyone will eat more than two bites. This goes for small
children and pets. They do not like things that taste bad and even a small child would have to eat a couple dozen or more leaves to have a problem.
You already know, I hope, that children do not need to be eating leaves of anything that you have growing. A small pet should not be eating your plants either.
It seems that rabbits and squirrels out there in the yard already know they should not be eating poinsettia leaves.
You should not have to be spraying this plant for any insects. Do not spray any of your house plants, if possible. The leaves will not hurt you but the insect spray will.
There are some of you that will want to keep this year's poinsettia until next year and enjoy bragging about how you managed to do this remarkable feat.
The price I pay for a poinsettia and the length of time I have to enjoy it is really enough for me. Yes, I did attempt to nurture a big red plant several years ago. I placed it out in the soil where it would not get any light during the September period of no light for this plant for 13 hours at a time. I placed it on the east side of the house, pot and all, and never turned on my outside door light. The next door neighbor did turn on his outside garage door light several times, like all night but it thrived and was about knee high and nice and red by November. I had also trimmed it back once about 4 inches in February and again in July for a small trim.
All of a sudden one morning when I went to admire it, the darn plant was naked! There was not one green leaf or bract left, only slender green stems. I quickly called one of my experienced gardener friends and she off-handedly told me that it must have been the great horned worm. ??? She explained it is about the size of a thumb and a poinsettia is one of their favorite foods. She also said just to pick it off and throw the furry thing in the trash. No way. I already knew it was gone and I was not about to go and look for it. That ended my nurturing of a poinsettia.
I now am perfectly happy to have a decent plant still blooming through March.
However, you should know that there are some gardeners who just break off a sturdy stem of their old poinsettia and stick it in the ground and after a few years they have a 4-foot or more blooming plant. It will be a little leggy but looks great.
Here are some names of poinsettia's to look for. Ice Punch, thin pointy leaves, red with a splash of red here and there. Carousel, a small kinky pointed leaf, all red. Strawberries and Cream, pointy leaves, some red with heavy splashes of cream. Freedom Pink, larger flat leaves, beautiful pastel pink. Winter Rose, a tight velvety rosette leaf.
The Winter Rose looks old-fashioned and when you cut stem from plant and
cauterize the stem it will last about a week in a vase with a little water around base.
You can do this procedure with all poinsettias but it is not always successful.
One last thing: The beautiful Christmas legend of a small child in Mexico, who long ago was on his way to church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.
He was poor and had no gift. He picked a pretty wildflower and placed it on
the alter with all the other beautiful offerings. Lo and behold his precious bouquet turned into a brilliant red flower.
There are many Christmas and holiday legends. We are all free to choose our favorites and practice our personal celebrations for the coming holidays.
Let us all remember those less fortunate than ourselves with a call, a card and a smile for everyone.
Happy holidays until we meet again.
H.I. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.