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A holiday dream – the poinsettia

By Ralph E. Mitchell

poinsettias ready for sale

A greenhouse of poinsettias ready for sale. – UF/IFAS File Photos

What seasonal plant better rings in the Holiday than the Poinsettia!   Botanically known as the Eurphorbia pulcherrima, this holiday charmer has a rich history that equals its brilliant color.

The Aztec’s called this plant “cuetlaxochitl” and used it in their fall celebrations.  Fast forward in time and Joel R. Poinsett, United States Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to the United States in 1825.  “The most beautiful Euphorbia” or Eurphorbia pulcherrima, was well on its way to becoming a botanical and economic success story.  By 1836, the plant was known by the common name poinsettia in honor of Ambassador Poinsett.  After extensive work and marketing in the plant industry including the famous Paul Ecke Ranch, the poinsettia is now an indispensable part of the Holiday season. A 2018 report showed that U.S. poinsettia sales had reached $149 million.

Poinsettias are actually woody tropical perennials with colorful bracts in shades of red, white, pink, and assorted novelty multicolor types with spots or blotches.  The modified leaves or bracts are the colorful portion of the plant.  The actual flowers are insignificant – small green and yellow structures in the center of the bract cluster.  Selection of an individual plant will of course vary with your particular color desires.  Poinsettias may be multi-stemmed or single-stemmed; some are even trained into a tree-form.  Regardless, make sure that the plant is not broken and check for insects (especially whiteflies) and diseases before purchasing.

While we may think of the poinsettia as a pot plant, keep in mind that it does make a suitable subject for outdoor culture in our area.  After you have enjoyed your poinsettia for the Holiday, harden it off in preparation for planting outdoors by slowly acclimating it to the outside environment.  Select a full-sun planting site that will provide a moist, well-drained soil.  Very important item – locate a spot that is not near artificial light sources such as streetlights or light from windows.  If the dark period required for setting flowers is interrupted, flowers will form late or not at all.   Flower buds are usually set by early October under the influence of longer nights.

Pruning will also help develop a bushy, attractive plant.  Prune poinsettias back to about eighteen inches in the early spring.  Pinch new growth when it reaches twelve inches back so that there are four leaves left per stem.  Repeat this process until September 10th  and no later.  There must be enough time for this final growth to mature before setting buds.

While poinsettias are very sensitive to cold, if freeze damage occurs, prune out the truly dead portions in March.  The remainder of the plant should recover without a problem.

Also, poinsettias are not as poisonous as had been previously reported.   Some people however are mildly allergic to the sap.

Pick up one or more poinsettias this season.  Not only can you treasure the blooms during the Holidays, but also have a decent tropical shrub that will be ornamentally useful for years to come!  For more information on all types of Holiday plants, or to ask a question, please visit https://www.facebook.com/CharlotteMGLifeline/.   Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or ralph.mitchell@charlottecountyfl.gov.

Don’t forget that Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ is a program that our office encourages as it promotes planting the “right plant in the right place”, water conservation, common sense pest management, sensible use of fertilizers, composting, etc. that help develop a sustainable landscape.  For more information on this important, over-arching program, please contact Sara Weber, FFL Education-Training Specialist, at  Sara.Weber@charlottecountyfl.gov .

Resources:
Park Brown, S. (2020) Poinsettias at a Glance. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, IFAS.
Frank,  M. (2020) Five Facts About the Poinsettia – UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions.
The History of the Poinsettia (Paul Ecke Ranch), 2016.
Poinsettia Day. http://www.poinsettiaday.com/history.html