Although this flowering plant has come to dominate the Christmas season, it came relatively late to the festivities. It was originally collected in 1803-04 by the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and was named after the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. Of course, while the ‘west’ may take credit for the discovery of the species, the Aztecs had long cultivated Poinsettias in its native Central America, using the latex for medicine and the colourful bracts for dyes. It has been grown commercially since the 1930s but did not find its way into our homes on a regular basis for December 25th celebrations until 20 to 30 years later, although Spanish Franciscan friars used Poinsettias in their nativity processions as early as the 17th century. Now they can be found in every grocery store and garden centre but many of us are still managing to kill them before the big day arrives, so here are some simple cultural advice and an overview of what’s available out there.
A Quick Botany Lesson – Poinsettias are actually members of the rather large Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) and are closely related to Crown of Thorns and Snow-on-the-Mountain. Its species name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means ‘the most beautiful’ in Latin, a claim it definitely lives up to. What most people consider colourful flower petals are actually bracts or modified leaves – the flowers proper are actually the tiny yellow blooms in the center of the bract whorl.
Are Poinsettias Really Poisonous? Many people with pets avoid buying Poinsettias because they have been told that they are highly poisonous. The truth is that they are only mildly toxic and even if your pet ate some leaves (which is unlikely, due to the unpleasant milky sap), the worst symptoms are an upset stomach or some drooling. By way of example, our cat Gus only seems attracted to dry leaves that fall to the ground and has never shown any interest in chewing on our Poinsettia plants proper. For people, the only concern is minor skin or eye irritation from the aforementioned milky sap, so if you have toddlers in the house keep them out of reach.
Flower Form – There are actually a myriad of flower forms available with newest being ‘Christmas Mouse’ which features perfectly rounded red bracts complimented by equally spherical deep green foliage. Wavy or undulating flowers can be found in ‘Carousel Red’, with this series providing bracts that look like they are in constant motion. Oak-Leaf types have holly-shaped foliage and bracts which come in many colours, including ‘Holly Berry’ (deep red), ‘Ruby Frost’ (tie-dye red and white) and ‘Holly Point’ (red with gold variegated foliage) or the improved ‘Tapestry’. Perhaps the most dramatic of the flower forms comes from the ‘Winter Rose’ series which features curled bracts that form a tight ball with colours ranging from red, pink, white and variegated. Last but not least are the ‘Princettia’ series which feature smaller flowers (with thinner bracts) borne on more compact plants, many of which come in eye-popping pinks.
'Carousel Red', 'Christmas Mouse', 'Holly Berry', 'Holly Point', 'Princettia Hot Pink', 'Ruby Frost', 'Winter Rose Eggnog', 'Winter Rose Red'
Colour Options – Red isn’t your only choice when choosing a poinsettia, in fact, modern breeding has broken many colour barriers of late. Prominent among them is yellow (‘Candy Wintergreen’) and peachy-cinnamon (‘Autumn Leaves’), as well as painted poinsettias, which are essentially white cultivars (such as ‘Whitestar’) which are spray-painted with plant-friendly dyes in hues of purple, blue or just about any colour you can think of. This year’s top white is ‘Alaska’, while both ‘Mars Pink’ and ‘Maren’ have been reliable pink cultivars for quite some time. Variegated bracts are also popular as evidenced by the longevity of ‘Mars Marble’ and ‘Marble Star’ (pink with cream edges), while ‘Strawberries ‘N Cream’ provides an Oak-leaf charm. White highlights or veining dominate ‘Ice Punch’ and ‘Ice Crystal’, while ‘Monet Twilight’ brings unique, speckled bracts. Just keep in mind that varieties are constantly being improved, so cultivars will come and go.
Poinsettia 'Alaska', 'Autumn Leaves', 'Candy Wintergreen', 'Ice Crystal', 'Ice Punch', 'Marble Star', 'Mars Marble', 'Mars Pink', 'Monet Twilight', Poinsettia painted blue, Poinsettia painted purple, 'Strawberries 'N Cream'
Choosing the Right Poinsettia – If the poinsettias you are considering are being displayed outdoors (I have seen this on more than one occasion) or very close to a drafty store entrance, don’t buy them, as these are just ‘dead men walking’ that will quickly deteriorate once you bring them home. Your ideal plant should have no yellow or fallen leaves with full foliage to the base, and bracts that are completely coloured (no green on the edges). Avoid those that are drooping or wilted (early signs of root rot) and check the true flowers to see if they have browned or are bearing a lot of pollen, as this would indicate a fading plant. Last and most important, make sure you get a plastic sleeve to protect it from the cold on the trip home.
Poinsettia Care Checklist
Placement & Light – A well-lit room with as much natural light as possible is ideal, away from any doorways or drafty windows.
Watering – Water when the soil surface is dry to the touch with tepid water and remove any accumulation in the saucer or plant sleeve.
Fertilizer – No fertilizer is required while your poinsettia is in bloom (which can last up to 4 months), after which the bracts fade to green.
Temperature – Try to avoid extremes, with day temperatures of around 20C and night temperatures not dropping below 16C being ideal.
Decorating with Poinsettias – Poinsettias have been combined in plantings for quite some time now, with the Kalsettia (white kalanchoe / red poinsettia) or Mumsettia (red poinsettia / white chrysanthemum) gracing our homes for many years now. For people who can’t make up their minds, the ‘Tricolor Poinsettia’ (one red, one white, one pink) seems to fit the bill. Other than that, you can combine tropicals or houseplants to create stunning mixed planters. Variegated spider plant, frosty fern (Selaginella) or flocked Alberta Spruce can be combined with white poinsettias for classic alba garden displays. Red and white combos are equally effective, using white variegated Brake ferns, dwarf cyclamen or veined Fittonia as effective foils. Larger houseplants such as Elephant Ear (Alocasia) can also be paired up with bigger red poinsettias to create elegant floor planters.