Pender Gardener: Poinsettia is the most popular flowering plant sold in the U.S.

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 16:11 PM.

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.

Growing conditions

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.

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