It’s that time of year again. Time to celebrate and consume a great deal of food. Time to hang the lights, decorate the Christmas tree and shop till we drop! Speaking of shopping, did you know the poinsettia is the most popular flowering plant sold in the United States, with more than 70 million sold nationwide each year? With work in the garden winding down and the dreary and cold days of winter upon us, what better way to spice up your life than with a poinsettia?
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the wide diversity of poinsettia varieties available you are missing out. You can find varieties that are speckled white and red, pink with a white edge, as well as solid colors including purple, cream, pink, and varying shades of red. Plant breeders’ attempts to develop a true white poinsettia have proved quite a challenge. Most of the white varieties you see available are closer to cream or off white in color. ‘Polar Bear’ is the closest to a true white currently available.
My problem when shopping for a poinsettia is which one to buy! I tend to go for the non-traditional varieties rather than the solid red types. Some of my favorites include Sonora White Glitter, Cortez Burgundy, Jingle Bells, Cinnamon Star, and Ice Punch.
Selecting the right plant
To get the most out of your poinsettia, select plants that have an abundance of dark, rich green foliage all the way down the stem. Look for plants that are balanced, full, and attractive from all sides. Select durable plants with stiff stems, good bract and leaf retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping.
The showy colorful parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flower petals are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. Poinsettias will drop their bracts and leaves soon after the true flowers shed their pollen. For the longest lasting poinsettias, inspect the true flowers in the center of the bracts and choose plants that have little to no yellow pollen showing.
Before joining Cooperative Extension, I spent 5 years growing poinsettias at Homewood Nursery in Raleigh, and let me tell you that is no easy task. Poinsettias are finicky plants and are extremely heavy feeders. In my opinion, they are one of the hardest and most demanding crops to grow. Fortunately, once they are grown, they are a little easier to keep alive at home through the holidays.
Place your poinsettia in a bright, sunny spot. Keep plants somewhere that stays above 50 degrees and is well away from drafts, excessive heat, or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts. Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water them thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Never let the potting mixture completely dry out and never let the plant sit in standing water. When watering, always take the plant out of its decorative pot cover. Water until water seeps out of the drainage hole and the soil is completely saturated. Do not fertilize a poinsettia when it is in bloom.
Keeping plants alive after the holidays and getting them to color up in future years is more of a challenge. The most crucial time for poinsettia color development is between the months of September- October. This is when any stray night time exposure to light could ruin color production. The colors of the bracts are created through "photoperiodism," which means they require darkness 12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row to change color. Once poinsettias finish that process, the plants require full sunlight to develop the brightest color.
Here is one final tip. You do not have to worry about keeping poinsettia plants away from pets, children, or hungry relatives. Despite common belief, poinsettias are not poisonous! This is an urban legend that began in the early 1920s and continues to persist.
To learn more about caring for your poinsettias visit NCSU’s poinsettia portal, poinsettias.ces.ncsu.edu. For lawn, gardening or landscape care questions, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Susan Brown is the horticulture agent with the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.