By MARION BARNES
No flower says Christmas quite like the poinsettia. This colorful plant with its traditional red and green foliage is the number one most popular flowering potted plant in the United States, even though its traditional sales period is just six weeks. Poinsettias account for over $200 million in retail sales annually in this country.
The poinsettia is a member of the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family and is native to Mexico and Central America where wild plants grow 10-15 feet in height with only one or two stems. In Mexico it blooms in December and is called “ La Flor de la Nochebuena” — Flower of the Holy Night. The Aztecs called the plant “Cuitlaxochitl,” which means star flower and used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric for clothing, and its sap was thought to be used to control fevers.
The poinsettia was introduced into America through Charleston South Carolina in the early 1820s by Joel R. Poinsett, a botanist, physician and the first United States ambassador to Mexico. December 12 is Poinsettia Day, marking the death of Joel Poinsett and honoring Paul Ecke Jr. who is considered the father of the poinsettia industry for his work and discovery of the technique that caused seedlings to branch and allowed the poinsettia industry to flourish.
The true flowers of poinsettias, called cyanthia, are small clusters of yellow blooms in the open center of the red floral bracts. These small flowers have no true petals attached, but are surrounded by red colorful bracts, which are actually modified leaves. These bracts attract insects for pollination of the small flowers. Plant breeders have developed cultivars with a wide range of colors including white, pink, peach, yellow, marbled and speckled bracts; however, red poinsettias continue to be the most popular and account for over three-quarters of sales.
If you are considering purchasing a poinsettia for the holidays, consider the following tips to ensure long lasting beauty.
• Select plants with fully mature and thoroughly developed bracts.
• Select plants with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage.
• Look for plants that are balanced and attractive from all sides.
• Select durable plants with firm stems, good leaf and bract retention, and no signs of wilting, drooping, or breaking.
• Choose plants with the yellow flowers in the center that are not quite open.
To help your poinsettia thrive in your home during the holidays consider the following:
• Light: Place your poinsettia in a bright location so it receives six hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Direct sunlight will fade the colors of the bracts. If direct sunlight cannot be avoided, consider filtering the sunlight with a light shade or screen curtain.
• Temperature: Excess heat will cause the leaves to fade and drop off. Daytime temperatures should not exceed 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid placing your plant near drafts, excessive heat or dry air from appliances, ventilation ducts or fireplaces. Temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit can cause cold injury and lead to premature leaf drop.
• Water and fertilization: Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water thoroughly when soil feels dry to the touch. Do not let the soil completely dry out and never let the plant sit in standing water. When watering, remove any decorative pot covering so that water seeps out of the drainage hole when the soil is saturated. Do not fertilize a poinsettia when it is in bloom.