Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations, and a great gift idea.

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Poinsettia Christmas Tree. Image by Michelle Maria from PixabayPoinsettia Christmas Tree. Image by Michelle Maria from PixabayLearn how to keep your Poinsettia thriving right through the festive season, and with the correct care you can even keep them blooming for years. In frost-free regions they also make great filler plants for garden beds. Read all about them in this article.

Poinsettia is a small deciduous tropical tree or shrub of the diverse spurge family which is cultivated for its striking red bracts, with potted forms being the basis of a lucrative Christmas industry.

It derives its common English name from the first United States Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825.

It is indigenous to Mexico where it grows wild in deciduous tropical forests, at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in the interior, in the hot and seasonally dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.

The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations - the star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the star of Bethlehem, and the red colour the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.

Pink Poinsettia. Image by Constance Kowalik from PixabayPink Poinsettia. Image by Constance Kowalik from PixabayIn the language of the Aztecs the plant is called Cuetlaxochitl; meaning "flower that grows in residues or soil;" and they used it to produce red dye, and medicinally to treat pain and fever. Today it is known in Mexico as "Noche Buena," meaning “flower of Christmas Eve. “ In Spain, Puerto Rico, Guatemala and other Central America countries it is known as "Flor de Pascua" or "Pascua" meaning "Easter flower." In Chile and Peru, the plant became known as "Crown of the Andes". 

Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey loved poinsettia, and it soon became widespread in cultivation there and today it is still called “Atatürk's flower. “ The poinsettia has also been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s.

Albert Ecke, who immigrated to America from Germany in 1900 and settled in Los Angeles became so intrigued with poinsettias that he started selling them from street stands, and later his son Paul developed the grafting technique, but it was the third generation of Eckes, Paul Ecke Jr. who was responsible for marketing the association between the plant and Christmas; sending free plants to television stations to decorate their sets from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He also appeared on television programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope's Christmas specials to promote the plants.

Red and White Poinsettia. Image by Michael Bubmann from PixabayRed and White Poinsettia. Image by Michael Bubmann from PixabayNeedless to say this brilliant marketing strategy paid off and the Ecke family moved their operation to Encinitas, California in 1923. There they developed a technique that made their plants much more attractive for indoor decoration because it produced a fuller more compact plant by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. This technique ensured that they kept the monopoly of the poinsettia market until a university researcher discovered the method previously known only to the Eckes and published it, allowing competitors to flourish. The family's business, now led by Paul Ecke III, decided to stop producing plants in the U.S. but as of 2008, they still served about 70% of the domestic market and 50% of the worldwide market. In the United States December the 12th is known as National Poinsettia Day and currently the USA exports about 90% of the world’s poinsettia plants.

In the Home & Garden:

Today there are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia and they are widely grown and immensely popular garden plants in tropical or subtropical gardens. In these regions it becomes a woody perennial that can be pruned into a shrub or small tree up to 4m high. The dark green leaves are dentate and the coloured bracts are most commonly red but can be orange, lime-green, cream, pink, white or marbled. The small clusters of yellow flowers are unassuming and do not attract many pollinators.

Poinsettia in the garden. Image By Thanks for Your like Donations welcome from PixabayPoinsettia in the garden. Image By Thanks for Your like Donations welcome from PixabayIn areas outside their natural environment poinsettias are commonly grown as indoor pot plants. They are easy to maintain and will last for a few months indoors making them popular Christmas decorations in homes, churches and offices; and a great gift idea.

When selecting your potted poinsettia, make sure that the plant is full with a balanced shape and has dark green leaves right down to the soil line. To check its maturity look at the true little yellow flowers located at the base of the coloured bracts; if the flowers are green or red-tipped and fresh looking the bloom will “hold” longer than if yellow pollen is covering the flowers.

Be careful when transporting poinsettias from the shop to your home because the branches break easily.

Sometimes a poinsettia will start wilting once you get it home, and continue to deteriorate, no matter what you do. This could be due to the plant having been over or under watered or kept in unsuitable conditions in shop before you bought it. Unfortunately there is little you can do about this; so buying from reputable suppliers is recommended. Poinsettias are mostly disposed of once they start to fade, but you can keep them all year and the bracts will colour up again if they are cared for correctly.

Cultivation:

In warm frost free regions poinsettias will thrive outdoors if planted in fertile, well-drained soil. Plant them in full sun, fertilise monthly during the growing season with a balanced fertiliser for flowers and prune hard after they have finished blooming.

Because poinsettias are tropical plants, in cold regions they are grown in greenhouses at temperatures of about 17 to 20°C, so this temperature range in the home is best for long plant life.

To force them to flower in summer, and especially at Christmas, South African growers trick them into believing its winter by blocking out all light in their growing tunnels early in the afternoon to simulate the longer nights and shorter days of winter.

Pink & Cream Poinsettia. Image by sandid from PixabayPink & Cream Poinsettia. Image by sandid from PixabayIndoors, place your potted poinsettia near a sunny window or any well-lit area, but keep it out of direct sunlight.  Ensure that the spot you have chosen is not too hot because high temperatures will shorten the life of the bracts. Poinsettias also don’t like hot or cold drafts, so keep them away from fans as well as open windows or doors. The flowering life of the plants is extended by humidity, so mist your plants regularly with tepid water.

The most common mistake is too over water them indoors; causing the leaves to turn yellow and drop. Allow the soil to dry out between watering, but examine the soil every day because under watering will cause the plant to wilt, and the lower leaves will drop. Always water enough to soak the soil to the bottom of the pot but it is very important to discard the excess water from the drip tray or your plant will rot. If you keep your plant for several months, apply a soluble high potassium houseplant fertiliser once a month.

Poinsettias in the wild flower in winter and the colouring of the bracts is created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change colour. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest colour.

Poinsettias are often disappointing in their second year but if you care for them correctly they can put on a good display again; especially in the warmer regions of the country. Weather you keep your poinsettia in a pot or plant it into the garden it will revert back to flowering in the winter and it is best to let it do this rather than attempting to get it to flower again next Christmas.

Creamy_white Poinsettia. Image by PublicDomainPictures from PixabayCreamy_white Poinsettia. Image by PublicDomainPictures from PixabayPrune back the stems hard after they have finished blooming, removing all the old red flowering ones. New growth will emerge from buds located in the leaf axils, and cutting will cause the buds to grow and develop. Move the plant outdoors into a sheltered spot with light filtered sunlight; and in cold regions return it to the house in autumn - well before the first frost. Place it in a room which is not used at night to simulate a period of uninterrupted long, dark nights in order to develop flowers; incidental light at night during this time will hamper flower production. During the day move it to a bright position indoors and don’t forget to continue feeding to encourage flowering.

If the plant is too large for the old pot, repot it into a larger pot after pruning, using a well-drained potting soil. You can also prepare your own growing medium, using 2 parts sterilised garden soil, 1 part peat moss and 1 part sand, vermiculite or perlite, plus a generous dressing of bone meal.

Propagation:

Poinsettias can be propagated by softwood cuttings in early summer, but make sure you wear gloves, as the milky sap can be an irritant.

Pests & Diseases:

Problems may include whitefly, mealybugs, red spider mites and scale. Root or stem rots can also occur if overwatered.

Coral Pink Poinsettia. Image by Mattias Bockel from PixabayCoral Pink Poinsettia. Image by Mattias Bockel from PixabayCaution:

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.

The sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are toxic, but the poinsettia's toxicity is relatively mild. Its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals and it is also mildly irritating to the skin or stomach and may cause diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten. Studies have shown that a strong majority of poinsettia exposures are accidental, involve children, and usually do not result in any type of medical treatment. POISINDEX, a major source for poison control centres, says a 50-pound child would have to eat 500 bracts to accumulate levels of toxins found to be harmful in experiments; and according to the American Medical Association’s Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, other than occasional cases of vomiting, ingestion of the poinsettia plant has been found to produce no effect.

Be careful when pruning this plant because the sap introduced into the human eye may cause temporary blindness.