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Find out how to care for and grow poinsettias this Christmas in my Growing Guide
Poinsettias are widely grown houseplants in the winter holiday season from December to January. Many people throw these plants away once their brilliant blooms have faded, but there’s no need to do so. This guide details how to care for poinsettias during their first life and then further on so it again produces colourful bracts (leaves) the next year. If I can give you one tip from the start, it’s that choosing healthy plants is very important.
Poinsettias that have been stored near open doors and cold drafts in garden centres and supermarkets with not last. I’ve even seen supermarkets store them on top of open fronted fridges. Unknown to buyers, these plants would quickly wilt and drop their leaves, unfortunately, once they got them home and they would probably blame themselves. You can learn more about choosing a healthy poinsettia further down.
It’s also worth noting that poinsettias are not poisonous to cats and dogs.
What are poinsettias?
Poinsettias which are part of the Euphorbia family, are houseplants which produce blooms that look like they’re made of leaves. These are actually called bracts. They come in colours that include red, pink, salmon, cream and burgundy but red is obviously the most popular. Poinsettias are relatively inexpensive, and people use them as gifts instead of bunches of flowers in wintertime. They’re cheerful plants with which to decorate your home for the holiday season. They are actually one of my favourite house plants I grow over Christmas.
Poinsettias come in a range of sizes from a miniature version (10cm tall) with a single head to multi-headed plants that can grow up to 60cm across. You buy them in a pot from your local garden centre, big box hardware store and the supermarket normally flood the entrances with them (Don’t buy these ones, they simply won’t last as they are exposed to cold winter drafts).
How to choose your poinsettia
Your two choices are colour and size. The larger plants look spectacular on their own. But a grouping of the mini ones creates an interesting centrepiece for your dining table.
Look for poinsettia in the stores from November onwards. These are fully grown plants; you very rarely find them earlier than this as they are not fully matured then. Choose one that looks healthy and doesn’t have drooping or falling leaves. Signs of health are dark green leaves all the way to the base of the plant and bright bracts. Check that the plants are stored in a warm environment and not left out in the cold air or by the shop door that opens and closes frequently. I can’t stress this enough!
Getting your poinsettia home
Keep your poinsettia warm on the ride home by asking to have it wrapped in paper or placed with a plastic bag over the top of it is also important. Poinsettias don’t like sudden temperature changes and respond by shedding some of their leaves. In fact, buy your plant on a warm and mild day rather than a cold and frosty one. Just transporting your poinsettia from the shop to your car without some sort of protection is enough to make it shred its leaves.
Placing your poinsettia
Although poinsettia are easy to look after, they do like quite specific growing conditions. Look for a place to put it that’s:
- In bright light but out of direct sunlight for six hours a day, I keep mine on tables but not on the windowsill unless it doesn’t get direct sunlight.
- Away from draughts such as open doors
- Has a minimum temperature of 13˚C to 16˚C, this is important but they will grow well in slightly higher temperatures but not colder.
Avoid these locations:
- Anywhere near a radiator (e.g. window sills) or other drying heat sources.
- Unheated rooms (e.g. a conservatory).
- Somewhere there’s a cold night temperature.
Place the pot inside a decorative pot for the best visual effect.
Watering the plant
Throughout the holiday season, you need to care for poinsettias only by watering them. The plant needs more water when the top of the soil begins to feel dry. At this time, take the inner pot out of the decorative pot and place it in a bowl of warm water and let the soil soak the water up. Leave the pot in there for 10 to 15 minutes. Lift out the pot and let it drain. Then return it to the decorative pot. You can water the soil from above with a small watering can but be careful not to overwater as this is worst than not watering it enough.
Don’t let your plant sit in excess water as this creates the perfect moist environment for root rot.
But poinsettias do like a slightly humid environment, so you can mist them occasionally with a spray of water. Make sure not to leave excess water on the leaves as this can encourage the growth of fungal leaf rot and other diseases.
Feeding your poinsettia
Fertilising your poinsettia is only necessary if your plan on keeping it around and not discarding it after all the blooms die, basically once it turns back into a green plant.
Starting when you see new growth (usually around January), apply a fertiliser once a month. Use one that has high potassium. I personally just use some tomato feed; it’s cheap and available almost everywhere.
My article How to get poinsettias to turn red again details the care for poinsettias needed throughout the year.
Keeping the plant going
You can have another winter holiday season with colour from your poinsettia. The key is to shorten their natural days from September onwards. Here is a summary of what to do. This is similar to how you also make Christmas cactus flower for Christmas. It’s all in the amount of light they get and specific temperature range.
In April, prune back the plant to about 10cm. Keep it in a cool room at about 13˚C. I keep mine in the dining room as this is kept as warm as my living room. Water only enough to keep the stem from shrivelling.
In early May, I repot the plant. I usually use a compost mixture made of 1 part horticultural grit and three parts John Innes No. 3. Keep in a light cool place over summer – 15˚C to 18˚C.
From late September, the plants need 8-10 weeks of shortened days, and this bit is super important. Cover the plant or put it in a darkened room after 12 hours of daylight per day. Don’t turn on any artificial lights in the room while the poinsettia is in its nighttime period. Keep the temperature constant at around 18˚C.
The reduction in the amount of light the poinsettia receives stops the production of chlorophyll, which lets the colour of the bracts develop rather than green leaves.
Pests and other problems
Like most house plants, poinsettias can be affected by pests, but the mean culprit is scale insects which I have talked about here. This also leads honeydew and sooty mould.
The biggest problem
The most common problems with poinsettias occur from cold damage. If your plant has been in cold conditions before you buy it, its leaves will start to fall off after you bring it home. There’s nothing you can do to stop or slow this down; however, you care for the poinsettias. I like to buy poinsettias I know have been on display for at least a few days. This way I know they’re fine.
However, if you purchased your plant from a nice, warm place and the leaves still fall, check the conditions you have placed the plant in. Is it warm enough, getting the right amount of sunlight and is the soil moist enough? The plant should stop dropping its leaves or bracts if its home conditions improve, especially if it’s just been a little colder than it prefers but not exposed to cold drafts.