A type of Euphorbia originally from Mexico, the poinsettia is a holiday season favorite. Poinsettias make a great gift, providing color and beauty in the middle of winter. Interestingly, the showy red part we think of as the flower is actually a group of colored bracts, designed for attracting insects in its native habitat. The true flowers are the golden yellow clusters (cyathias) located in the center of the bracts. Poinsettias are often disposed of after the holiday season, but with some extra care, they can be kept as a houseplant in bright sunny conditions for several years.
For a long time, poinsettias have been falsely believed to be poisonous. Multiple sources, including the Mayo Clinic and Pet Poison Hotline, report it is only mildly toxic if ingested by children or animals, and shouldn’t be a concern. At most, it may cause nausea or vomiting which usually goes away with time.
Poinsettias are sensitive to the cold, dropping leaves if chilled. When you purchase a poinsettia, it is placed in a sleeve for protection, but shouldn’t be exposed to cold air any longer than the short trip to and from the car. Avoid leaving in the car while you finish shopping. Remove plastic sleeve immediately once indoors. Be sure to cut the sleeve off instead of pulling it down, since stems are very brittle and break easily.
Light and Temperature
Place in an area with bright natural light, where it won’t be exposed to drafts, heat from appliances, radiators, or ventilation ducts. The color will last longer if the temperature remains around 75 degrees F during the day and 60-65 degrees F at night.
If it has a pot cover or foil wrapper, pierce the bottom to allow drainage, and place on a saucer to catch the overflow from watering. Check soil daily for watering needs by touching the soil. If the soil is moist, don’t water. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly until water comes out of the bottom of the pot. Empty the saucer after water has drained so that the roots don’t rot. Over-watering is the most common cause of poinsettia problems, so allow the soil to dry in between waterings.
Poinsettias do not need fertilizer while they are blooming. If kept as a houseplant, begin fertilizing when new growth appears sometime around June and continue until it blooms again in the fall. Use a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer, such as Bonide Liquid Plant Food, according the label.
Eventually, the colorful bracts that make up the blooms will fall off. Once that happens, decrease watering to allow the plant to dry out more, and place in a cool, yet sunny spot for spring.
In May, cut the entire plant back to about 4-6 inches and repot in a larger container with some fresh soil. Water regularly, keep warm, and begin applying a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer when new growth appears. In June, move the poinsettia outside to a lightly shaded location and pinch the growing tips through mid-summer.
Return indoors for the fall to a sunny spot, and continue to feed regularly until it blooms. In mid-autumn, keep the plant in total darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. and it will bloom again for the holidays.