How to care for poinsettias

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By Julie Karmeier, Washington County Master Gardener—


I recently attended the funeral of a friend and one of the memorials given was a beautiful poinsettia. I was approached by the family as to how to care for this gorgeous plant and that made me think that many people receive or purchase poinsettias and are sometimes fearful of how to care for them.

Typically, we associate the poinsettia (Euphoriba pulcherrima) with the holidays mainly due to the red and green coloration. The memorial plant was a vivid shade of orange, and yes, poinsettias do come in many colors. They are often sprayed with horticulture paint and glitter may be added as well.

The poinsettia is considered a perennial plant in its native Mexico and South America homes. It can grow up to 15 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The actual flower of the plant is the insignificant yellow center and what we typically think of as the flowers are modified leaves called “bracts.” When selecting a poinsettia, make sure the bracts are all red and not shades of red and green which means the plant is not fully developed. Poinsettias are considered tropical plants. They are not used to drafty, cold temperatures, so be careful not to purchase a plant that is being exposed to drafts from opening and closing doors or other wind exposure which can shorten the life of the plant and cause leaf droppage. Make sure to have your plant wrapped before taking it home to protect it from the cold.

You’ve purchased or received the perfect plant — now what do you do?

1. Watering is probably the number one reason most plants do not survive — not just poinsettias. Water poinsettias when the top of the soil feels dry. Most of our homes tend to be dryer in the winter, so check your plant frequently. If you purchased your poinsettia in one of the decorative foil pot covers, cut holes in the bottom to allow for drainage and do not allow the plant to sit in water.

2. This is a tropical plant, so misting will also help to keep your poinsettia looking healthy. Another way to get added humidity is to fill a saucer with rocks and then add water. Set the pot on top of the rocks, making sure the bottom is not touching any water.

3. Sunlight is very important. Place your plant in a south, west or east facing window, but be careful to not let the leaves touch the glass.

4. Poinsettias are a lot like people and like a temperature of 65-75 degrees but keep them away from drafts and registers.

5. Although you’ve been told that poinsettias are poisonous, according to WebMD Magazine, a child would have to eat 500 leaves to get sick. However, the poinsettia is a Euphoriba and if you break off a bract it will ooze a white substance which may cause an itchy rash if it contacts the skin, but that will go away.

If you want more information on poinsettias check out this video by our local Horticulture Educator at https://www.youtube.com/watchv=linVZzOoW0w or contact your local University of Illinois Extension office.



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