If other plants and flowers have their own national day of celebration – tulips (May 13), roses (June 12), and even dandelions (April 5) – why not the poinsettia? Not to worry my frugal friends the poinsettia hasn’t been slighted. In fact, Dec. 12 is officially National Poinsettia Day, an entire day devoted to honoring none other than Euphorbia pulcherrima, commonly known as the “poinsettia” or sometimes the “Christmas Star.”
Indigenous to Mexico and Central America, in warmer climates poinsettias grow in the wild as perennials, and develop into shrubs or even small trees. But for most of us northern dwellers, our prized poinsettias are usually temporary holiday decorations - bright and festive one day, then losing their leaves and withering the next, sometimes even before we pack away the other holiday decorations.
I won’t beat around the bush – or the poinsettia – because if you live in a nontropical climate, keeping your holiday poinsettia alive and making it bloom again in the future requires some serious commitment. But isn’t it worth the sacrifice, particularly if you’re truly a frugal gardener like me? In honor of National Poinsettia Day, here are some tips for making your “Christmas Star” last longer, and maybe even help it survive for Christmases to come:
- Light: Place your poinsettia in the sunniest room of the house and be careful not to let it touch a cold windowpane, in order to help it thrive and bloom longer this holiday season.
- Water: Every day or two, touch the top of the soil. When the surface is dry to the touch, water the plant until the water runs freely through the drainage holes in the pot. Discard any water that collects in the saucer, as poinsettias don’t like to be left standing in water (who does?).
- Temperature: Maintain a daytime temperature of 65-70 degrees, and, if possible, a few degrees cooler during the nighttime hours. This makes the poinsettia a good fit for any room in the house that you keep warmer during the day, then turn down the heat in during the night to save on energy costs.
Continue following these care instructions until early April, then allow the plant to gradually dry out, watering less frequently. In mid-May, cut the stems back to about 4 inches above the soil, repot in a slightly larger container, water thoroughly, and move to a sunny, warm location (75 degrees or so). When new growth appears, begin fertilizing the plant with a water soluble fertilizer every two weeks.
The plant can be moved outside to a slightly shaded location during the summer and continue to water and fertilize regularly. To promote winter blooming, pinch one inch from stems in early July, then pinch the new stems back again in mid- to late August, allowing three or four leaves to remain on each shoot. At that time, bring the plant back indoors and place it near a sunny window, continuing to water and fertilize. To have the plant flower around Christmastime, it needs complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. from Oct. 1 until Thanksgiving (place a box over it during that period, if necessary). Continue fertilizing the plant until mid-December. (See, I told you that this requires serious commitment.)
Last but not least, a final word in support of the precious poinsettia: Despite the popular belief the poinsettias are highly toxic, that’s greatly exaggerated. While poinsettias should not be deliberately eaten and their sap can cause an allergic reaction when exposed to the skin or eyes, studies by Ohio State University and others have shown that ingestion of even large amounts of the plant may cause diarrhea and vomiting, but no fatalities have ever been documented.
So give the poinsettia a break, particularly on National Poinsettia Day.
Photo credit: Denise Yeager