With its brightly-coloured, star-shaped bracts, the poinsettia is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas in the world. We find it in supermarkets, garden centres and florists, as well as emblazoned on Christmas cards and wrapping paper. At once cheap and cheerful, celebrated and cherished, it’s perhaps not surprising that we have turned this showy little shrub into a favourite seasonal icon.
The poinsettia has come a long way from its Central American roots, where once it was used by the Aztecs to create purple dye and a treatment for fevers. The USA’s first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, first spotted the plant’s horticultural potential in 1828. From his plantation in South Carolina his newly discovered Mexican spurge found its way to legendary plant collector John Bartram, and thence into the hands of plantsman Robert Buist. Buist foresaw the poinsettia’s commercial potential, and was probably the first to have sold them under their correct latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning ‘the most beautiful euphorbia’. Poinsettias were initially sold as cut flowers rather than plants, which might surprise and inspire today’s florists. The Ecke family from Southern California were the first to offer them as pot plants, and they’re still the main producer of poinsettias in the USA today.
Poinsettias are grown and pedalled in their hundreds of millions every Christmas, destined to grace fireplaces, coffee tables and windowsills for a few brief days before being consigned to the dustbin. Few of us bother to keep them alive and fewer still know how to coax them into reflowering. Poinsettias will tolerate the heat in our homes, but any spell of cold prior to that could be enough to kill them. All that deflects from the terrible waste of energy and effort involved in nurturing a poinsettia is that it’s a living thing, and therefore not considered ‘rubbish’ in the same way as discarded wrapping paper or cracker gifts. Never mind that they are grown as a monoculture in heated greenhouses and sprayed with chemicals to keep them healthy and compact, before being transported long distances in climate-controlled vehicles. An environmentally friendly choice they are certainly not! The National Farmers’ Union recommends buying British to support UK growers and thereby reducing the distance plants have to travel to reach your home.
Here are a few more tips if you want to keep your poinsettia looking lush and lively for longer:
- Poinsettias loath cold. If they experience 13ºC or below for 15 minutes or more, the leaves will drop. That means that almost any plant picked up outside a florist or petrol station will already be at death’s door. Save your pennies rather than waste them on a plant you cannot save. Even the short journey between a reputable retailer and boot of your car could be enough to initiate an early autumn, so ask for your plant to be loosely wrapped in paper or bubble wrap, including the top part.
- Poinsettias are brittle shrubs. Check inside the sleeve for broken branches and pick a compact plant with plenty of unblemished bracts.
- Choose a plant with unopened flowers. The part of the poinsettia we all recognise is not in fact a flower, but an array of brightly coloured leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are the yellow or green bead-like clusters in the centre of these bracts. Pick a plant where just a few have opened, as the plant is likely to last longer.
- Let air flow around your plant, but keep it away from drafts. As soon as you get home remove the plastic sleeve from your poinsettia to prevent too much moist air from building up and causing mould. Cold and hot drafts are a killer, so avoid positioning near doors, next to a window or above a radiator.
- Keep your poinsettia warm, brightly lit and well-watered. They do best at 18ºC or above during the flowering season, but avoid placing them above a radiator or open fire as this will quickly dehydrate them. Poinsettias originate from Mexico and are accustomed to decent light levels, making them unsuitable for dark rooms. Plants are often under-potted to reduce costs and make them easier to transport, so regular watering may be needed. Let the surface of the compost dry out between times and never allow them to become waterlogged.
If at first you don’t succeed, don’t be too hard on yourself. The damage was probably done before you purchased your plant. 99% of purchasers only manage to keep their plant alive for a few weeks, after which they have served their purpose anyway. Should you be determined to join the 1% who rejoice in keeping a poinsettia from one year to the next, here’s the advice offered by the Royal Horticultural Society :
- Prune hard in April, to about 10cm (4 inches), and keep at a temperature of 13°C (an unheated spare bedroom is normally ideal, provided you don’t forget it’s there!).
- Repot using fresh compost in early May. Grow on in a light, cool place over summer. A temperature of 15-18°C (60-65°F) is ideal. This is somewhat cooler than most houses, so the windowsill of a north-facing room would be ideal.
- Flowering and colourful flushing of the bracts is initiated by a short winter day-length, occurring naturally in December and January. This is a little late to produce a timely Christmas display, so, from November onwards, plants should be placed in a dark room or airing cupboard after twelve hours of daylight and protected from artificial light sources overnight.
- Poinsettias need a constant temperature of around 18°C to colour-up well, so bring them into a warm room over Christmas.
- Commercially grown poinsettias are often treated with a growth suppressant or dwarfing chemicals to create a compact plant. Plants grown on for a second year may revert to their taller, natural habitat. (Personally I find this a lot more attractive.)
You may by now have decided that there are better things to do with your life, for which you’d be quickly forgiven. Reflowering a poinsettia is about as unrewarding as completing a tax return, even for the most enthusiastic environmentalist or green-fingered horticulturalist. Better to chuck it out and start again next year, or not bother at all. A poinsettia really is just for Christmas, not for life. TFG.