Poinsettia Care

Red poinsettia flowers
Red poinsettia flowers

Euphorbia pulcherrima

Poinsettias are one of the most purchased and adored plants at Christmas time. Over 35 million of them are sold each year in the U.S. That’s almost a quarter of all potted plants sold in in the U.S.

Native to southern Mexico the red “flowers” are not actually flowers, they’re modified leaf bracts. The flowers are the yellow buds and flowers at the center of the flower cluster. The plant grows the red bracts as it starts to form flower buds. The purpose of the red is to signal to pollinators that “flowers are here, come and get some nectar, and pollen if you’re a bee, and do some pollinating for us while you’re at it”.

In warm southern parts of the U.S. poinsettias can grow without freezing to death. They grow tall, up to 10 ft. tall. And their “flowers” last for months.

They sure are stunning with their bright red flowers. But it’s a real disappointment when your poinsettia leaves and brilliant red flower bracts yellow, curl, and drop before Christmas. If that’s happened to you or if you want to prevent that, you need to know how to give your poinsettias the best care.

Proper poinsettia care is essential to keeping your plants looking good through the entire Christmas season

Start with healthy plants. Choose plants whose flowers are still in the bud stage. Check the soil. If it’s too dry or dripping wet, it hasn’t been well cared for and may not do well for you.

Bring them home packed so they do not bump into anything. The foliage damages easily and may not be evident right away. Wrap it with paper to help.

For the ride home, and at any point in the plant’s life, do not let it be exposed to temperatures below 54 degrees F. Also keep away from drafts and breezes. The cold does not cause visible damage but can lead to premature leaf drop in a few days.

 Water: Poinsettias like to be kept on the dry side, so water them when the soil is dry to the touch, or when the plant feels light when lifted. Allow it to drain. Remove the foil wrapper to be sure that it drains. Room temperature water is best.

A good way to water thoroughly is to pour some water on the soil, let it drain, and after a few moments pour some more water onto the soil and let that drain. The first application hydrates the soil fibers throughout the root ball, making them swell so they hold some water from the second application. Once drained, then you may replace the wrapper or place in a saucer.

If leaves are yellowing or falling off, it may need water a bit more often. In very dry environments, like near a dry heater, the plants will need extra watering. And some misting would help.

Temperature: It’s important to keep poinsettias in  normal room temperatures, from 65 – 70 degrees F. No cold temperatures and not close to any heater.

Light: Place in a window where it will get bright daylight, usually out of direct sun. But in winter sun may not be a problem where you are and a south facing window may be fine. Use caution so the leaves don’t burn. If the sun is really bright move the plants away a bit.

Fertilizer: There’s no need to fertilize your poinsettias during the holiday season.

Poinsettia plant
Poinsettia plant

More on the plants

Poinsettias are member of the Euphorbia genus, which all have a sticky, milky sap. It is not poisonous, though it’s not recommended to eat. You’d have to eat a lot to be hazardous to your health. Most people have no reaction to the sap, but some sensitive people do. Wear gloves if that is the case. Do not get it in eyes.

The foliage is brittle and bleeds the sap easily. Once the sap dries it can be scraped off with a fingernail.

Flowers for cutting

White and red cut poinsettia flowers in a vase
A bouquet of cut white and red poinsettia flowers

Another fun thing is to cut them for bouquets. They have a vase life of at least 2 weeks!   

Poinsettia branches are very brittle and can break when moving them. If this happens or some other damage happens to your plants, you can give them a new life as cut flowers! The flowers easily last 2 weeks in the vase.

Using them as cut flowers also gives you the opportunity to use the flowers in a smaller tabletop display.

With a milky sap many people insist you need to either burn the freshly cut edge to seal the sap or to plunge the edge into boiling water for 60 seconds. I don’t do this and I have fantastic cut poinsettia flowers that last for over 2 weeks.

Simply make a fresh cut, at an angle, on the stem and put into water.

I even take broken branches on plants where the branches all wilted. When I make a clean cut, put them in water, and wait, they perk up, and look great! Though, sometimes this takes several hours. And they all go on to last a long time. So it’s very much worth the try!

Growing for next year’s bloom?

Poinsettias are very fussy about the light and the darkness they need to bloom. Growers have well- tuned greenhouses with the correct temperatures, watering and fertilizing schedules, and number of hours of daylight and darkness, to get their plants to bloom like crazy.

So the problem many of us face in the northern climes is giving them the darkness they need, when they need it.

It involves about 10 weeks of 16 hours of total darkness at 60 degrees, and 8 hours of bright daylight. Then there’s varying fertilizing schedules, varying watering schedules, rotating the plant, and adequate lighting.

I think it’s best to leave it to the professionals. But if you’re in a frost-free zone, it’s very worth planting it out in the ground or in a pot! See what happens.