The poinsettia can be found everywhere right now — florists, nurseries, grocery stores, large-scale retailers, even hardware stores. As common as they are, you might wonder how to choose plants with confidence and care for them, so they won’t droop before Santa drops down the chimney.
The poinsettia is probably the most familiar form of a specialized leaf known as a bract. The bracts are bright red, and they surround the very small flowers, which are usually yellow. When shopping for a poinsettia, K-State Research and Extension horticulturist Ward Upham suggests looking for the brightest yellow flowers, as those tend to be fresher.
“Make sure that the green leaves are intact and straight, not drooping over. The bracts should be brightly colored. Check the undersides of the leaves for insects. The soil in the pot should be moist, but not waterlogged.”
Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to cold temperatures. Transporting the plant from the retailer to your home really is a do-or-die mission.
“Any temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time could damage the plant. Florists will often have a plastic sleeve over them — if you buy one from another retailer, it’s not a bad idea to put a bag over it. And then go from the store to your vehicle, and from your vehicle into the house.”
Place the plant where it can receive plenty of bright, indirect light. Avoid drafts — cold drafts, warm drafts, all of them.
“A place near an outside door is just as bad as a place near an air vent,” Upham said.
Poinsettias prefer temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is, of course, what most people prefer during the winter, too. Perhaps the most challenging tightrope to walk in terms of poinsettia care is water.
“They are sensitive to either over- or under-watering,” Upham said. “Too little water can lead to wilt, which can progress to leaf loss and possibly even some bract loss. Too much water can cause root rot, and that’s just as bad.”
To avoid watering too soon, stick your finger down into the soil, about half an inch; if the soil is moist, it’s fine. Dry soil means the plant needs water, and it needs to be saturated.
“When you do water, pour on enough so that you see water draining out of the bottom of the pot,” Upham said. “If you have a tray or saucer underneath, discard any water that collects there,” Upham said. “Many poinsettias are sold with decorative foil surrounding the pot. You’ll need to make a hole in the bottom of that foil so that water can flow into the saucer or tray.”
Following these instructions, your poinsettia should last several weeks. While it is possible to keep a poinsettia going from year to year, Upham warns that the blooming process is very challenging, even for the most experienced plant enthusiast.
“Assuming your poinsettia survives the summer outdoors, the real work begins in September. Poinsettias need 12 hours of absolute darkness, every night, for about six or seven weeks. That means putting the plant in a closet, and covering it with a cardboard box with all the seams taped over,” Upham said. “Because of that, most people just toss them out in January or February, and buy another one next year.”