Poinsettias – a living symbol of Christmas

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Dec. 11, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Poinsettias are truly a living symbol of this holiday season, with 65 million plants gracing the festive scene last year. Originating near present-day Taxco in Mexico, wild poinsettia plants can grow into 12-foot shrubs. Because of its brilliant color, this plant was cultivated by the Aztecs, who believed it to symbolize purity. They also used it as a dye plant and valued its medicinal properties. When a community of Franciscan priests settled in this area during the 17th century, they used this bright red native plant which bloomed during the Advent season to decorate their Nativity celebration. Soon this became a tradition throughout Mexico.

The poinsettia was first introduced to the United States during the 1820s by Joel Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett, a southern plantation owner and botanist, brought plants back to his South Carolina greenhouse, where they flourished. It was not until 1920, however, that the first poinsettia variety was developed that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. The credit for this development goes to Paul Ecke, Sr., who went on to develop dozens of new cultivars including shades of salmon, dusty rose, pink and creamy white. More recent introductions include lemon yellow and multi-colored poinsettias. Now there are at least 100 named varieties.

Poinsettias were bred not only for their color, but also for size and longevity. Early cultivars were leggy and noted for their habit of dropping leaves. Present-day varieties can be found as miniatures that stay under a foot and standards that reach up to 18 inches or so. You can also find poinsettias that resemble small trees and others trained to droop over hanging baskets. Growers typically apply growth regulators to plants to produce shorter, fuller specimens.

Often the bright-colored bracts are mistaken for the poinsettia’s flower. Actually, the flower is the yellowish berry-like cluster at the bract’s center. Pink varieties are noted for their longevity, frequently lasting until well into March. All poinsettias will hold their leaves and bracts longer when kept out of drafts. Keep them in a bright spot where temperatures do not drop below 55 degrees F. They like to be moderately moist, but don’t let them sit in a saucer full of water.

Most people toss their poinsettias in the compost pile after they start to shed their bracts, but with a little care, they can be grown as houseplants and brought into bloom for next year. After the bracts fall off, place your plant in a dark, dry location with temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees F. Eventually the leaves too will be shed. During this time, water sparingly, just enough to keep the roots from drying out. Plants should be cut back to about 6 inches.

In May, you should notice new buds forming. Transplant your poinsettia into a 1-inch-larger pot using a soilless mix. Plants may be placed on a sunny windowsill, but keep on the dry side until new growth appears. When all danger of frost is past, set the plant outside in a sunny spot, keep it well watered and fertilize monthly with an all-purpose fertilizer.

Pinch all growth tips in August to encourage branching. Continue watering and monthly fertilizing until September, but be sure to bring your plants in if a frost is predicted.

Twelve hours of uninterrupted darkness each day is required to trigger the formation and coloring of the bracts. Either cover your plant each evening or place it in a dark room or closet at night starting the second week of October and continuing until Thanksgiving. You should notice the bracts coloring up and you can bring it into a more prominent place to display it for the holidays.

Many believe poinsettias to be poisonous, but no record exists of any fatality caused by poinsettia ingestion, according to the National Clearinghouse for Poison Control Center. Some people may develop a contact dermatitis from the sap, however.

Poinsettias are like candy canes, gaily decorated trees and bright red bows – it wouldn’t seem like the holiday season without them. Check out the selection of poinsettias and other holiday plants and arrangements at UConn Blooms, the newly-renovated floral salesroom on the Storrs campus. Call 860-486-6000. A link to their holiday offerings can be found at www.ladybug.uconn.edu. For questions on poinsettias or other gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271 or visit your local Cooperative Extension office.

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