Here in the States, we love to offset the muted shades of winter with bright colors that keep us cheerful and energized. This tradition makes poinsettias a shoo-in for the most popular winter plant (unless, of course, we’re considering Christmas trees)!
Poinsettias were first brought over from Mexico by Joel Poinsett in the 1900’s, and their popularity as the “Christmas plant” exploded about 80 years later. A botanical researcher got his hands on a previously well-guarded method to cultivate robust plants that produce that bold, flower-like red foliage. They rapidly become a holiday favorite.
But enough with the history lesson. What is the best way to care for these beauties? Can they live beyond the winter months and rebloom the following year? And are all those rumors about their toxicity really true?
Here are the most important details you need to know about caring for poinsettias in the winter.
Pick a Healthy Plant
The flowers of a poinsettia are really quite small, and the leaves surrounding them are called bracts. You know you’ve got a sick plant if the bracts are pale (greenish-white or yellow), and the flower buds are already shedding pollen. Pick a plant whose leaves are deep and vibrant in color, with healthy looking buds.
As with any house plant, you want to inspect the soil and stems as thoroughly as possible before bringing it home. Check beneath and between the foliage, as well as the top layer of soil, for rotting leaves and invasive insects.
One reason these plants tend to thrive in the winter is that they need a lot of light and a lot of darkness. Poinsettias aren’t “born” with multi-colored leaves. This burst of color, sometimes mistaken as large flower petals, actually develops over a period of several days. The bracts need as much sunlight as possible to achieve a truly vibrant color contrast, but they require at least 12 hours of dark in order to fully transition from green to red.
If you purchase a plant with bracts that haven’t yet changed in color, be sure you place it in a spot that allows it to soak up the rays all day long if possible. A plant whose leaves have already turned red (or pink, or white!) still needs at least 6 hours of light, though it doesn’t have to be direct sunlight.
Poinsettias are only moderately thirsty plants. Their soil should feel moist to the touch, but never truly wet or soggy. Overwatering is evidenced by wilting leaves and drooping flowerbuds. If you make this mistake, simply give the plant a rest so its soil can dry up a bit. You might take a moment to inspect for yellowing or thoroughly wilted stems, as pruning them will help the plant bounce back more quickly.
The tricky thing is that, as with many plants, wilted leaves can also indicate that your poinsettia is drying out. Best practice is to check the soil regularly and aim for a watering schedule of about once per week.
Poinsettias are happiest at temperatures between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that you do want to keep them indoors during the coldest stretch of winter, but you also want to protect them from direct heat sources such as space heaters.
Cooler temperatures, especially at night, help them retain a deep, rich color in their foliage. If you’ve got a garage, you may consider treating your poinsettias to the cool, dark environment overnight. However, this suggestion truly depends on regional climate patterns, as extreme temperature changes can be stressful for the plant.
If you want to try and sustain your poinsettia after the holidays have ended, bear in mind that reblooming is a gradual process that requires some attention. You also want to consider the fact that these lovely houseplants are actually trees! If the plant continues to thrive, you will eventually need to re-pot it.
As the spring season approaches, you want to gradually decrease the watering schedule, letting the soil dry out just slightly more so than before. At the same time, incrementally increase the amount of sun exposure. Prune it more diligently as it continues to grow, and be mindful of re-potting as the root system expands.
Your poinsettia will enjoy partial shade outside in the spring and early summer, but will need to be moved back indoors when the heat of August sets in. If you’ve still got a healthy plant next autumn, the trickiest part is making sure it gets about 15 hours of total darkness for about a month’s time. Come November, you can resume the care schedule we outlined previously.
Poinsettias belong to the spurge family, many of whose species are known to be toxic. The good news is, despite all the rumors, your beautiful poinsettia is among the least harmful in that group. For both humans and pets, ingesting the leaves can cause irritation, but certainly nothing fatal.
The sap of a fully grown tree can also cause skin irritation, but this is not a concern for those keeping poinsettias as winter houseplants. As with all plants, you want to discourage your children- both the human ones and the furry ones- from munching on them, but the risk is not nearly as significant as we were once lead to believe.
- A healthy poinsettia will have bright leaves with perky flower buds. Look out for wilted stems and insects.
- They need both light and darkness to retain bright foliage. A plant whose bracts haven’t turned yet will need more sunlight to help that process along.
- You only need to keep the soil lightly moist. Aim for watering the plant about once per week.
- Poinsettias enjoy temperatures ranging from about 55*-75*. Avoid rapid, drastic temperature shifts.
- Reblooming is possible, but it requires a lot of well-timed care. Be prepared for pruning and re-potting.
- These plants aren’t nearly as poisonous as many of us were raised to believe. Take the same precautions with pets and children that you employ with all other houseplants.
Poinsettias really don’t require much work to maintain their beauty throughout the winter months, so long as you take the basic steps we’ve outlined to keep them healthy and happy. For more useful tips about houseplants, check out Indoor Plants that Are Easy to Care For.