The Greatest Houseplant Ever?

by Ken Miller | Dec 1, 2022 | 0 comments

The poinsettia is probably the most popular potted flower in U.S. history—at least in terms of pots sold. Last year around thirty-five million pots of poinsettias were sold in the U.S., almost all of them between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Why limit this beautiful plant to the holidays? Why not enjoy its colorful display for months and months through “The Bleak of Midwinter”?

Did I say months and months? Yes!

Keeping a poinsettia as a cheery houseplant into April or beyond isn’t terribly difficult.

In my job as a greenhouse grower, I’ve had the privilege of growing hundreds of thousands of poinsettia plants over the years. Allow me to give a few tips on enjoying the poinsettia as a houseplant.

First and foremost, be discriminating with your poinsettia purchase.

Those bedraggled-looking poinsettias offered by your local mega-mart often don’t last more than a few weeks.
They may have been looking great when they left the producer’s greenhouse. It’s the shipping that kills them.

Poinsettias are bagged into “sleeves,” crammed onto carts, or packed into boxes. Then these sun-loving plants are shipped in bouncing, swaying semi-trailers for hundreds of miles, kept in darkness without food or water for days.

Ethylene gas (a natural gas produced by decaying fruit or vegetation) can build up during shipping, causing irreparable damage.

And if these heat-loving tropical plants encounter extended temperatures below 50° F (10 ° C), they go into “plant hypothermia.” Chilling results in drooping leaves and premature death.

Conditions at your local mega-mart are often not much better. It’s not practical or space efficient to un-sleeve all those poinsettias and display them in a well-lit area with plenty of air space between them.

So the mega-mart retailer keeps these poor beauties imprisoned in sleeves, jammed together on the shelves.
Foliage disease and root rot proliferates.

The only hope for the mega-mart is to price these sufferers at $3.99 and get enough non-discriminating customers to carry those wretched plants out the door before they die completely.

May I suggest an alternative?

Take a nice leisurely drive to your local Mom-and-Pop greenhouse or garden center.

There you’ll likely find poinsettias that have been tenderly grown on site and spared from the horrors of long-distance shipping.

You’ll likely pay more. But the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” is true.

How does a discriminating poinsettia buyer make his choices? What does he look for?

1. AGE OF THE FLOWER. Many people are surprised to learn that the colored part of the poinsettia technically is NOT the flower. The colored part is called the bract. The flower is the relatively inconspicuous yellow center of the bract, made up of six to ten flowerettes, called cyathia.

A poinsettia in its prime will have the bracts fully colored and the cyathia still intact. When the cyathia have fallen off, the poinsettia is technically past its prime.

Fallen cyathia is not a disaster. Most people hardly notice the cyathia anyway. Your locally grown poinsettia can still last for months as a very colorful houseplant, provided the plant is healthy when you purchase it.

2. BRACT HEALTH. Do the bracts have brown spots on them, or brown edges? This could be the dreaded botrytis or a burn. Best to stay away.

3. LOWER LEAF COLOR. Are the lower leaves healthy and green or pale and yellow? Does brushing your hand against the lower foliage cause the leaves to fall like rain? Stay away!

4. ROOTS. If no one is looking, and you can do it without breaking the branches, squeeze the pot a bit to loosen it. Then carefully take the poinsettia stem at the very base of the plant between your thumb and forefinger. Lift the plant gently from the pot and look at the roots.

The roots should be firm and mostly a healthy white or slightly yellow color. If all you see are brown mushy roots, put the poinsettia back into the pot and RUN!! Flee from the dreaded poinsettia root plague!

Okay, so this is being overly dramatic, but you get the point.

If the roots look healthy, the lower leaves are nice and green, the bracts are undamaged, and if you haven’t broken up the plant while looking at the roots, you can buy that poinsettia with confidence. If you broke up the plant, just buy it. The confidence part will be missing though.

Home Care

First let’s clear up a misconception. Poinsettias are NOT, repeat, NOT, poisonous. The sap might be mildly irritating to some people, but researchers have shown that a child weighing 50 pounds (23 kg) would have to eat 500 poinsettia leaves to cause any harmful effects. So if you find your two-year-old chewing on a leaf, don’t bother calling the poison control center. Just give him or her something else to chew on! (Sap will stain clothes.)

Location: Your poinsettia will do best under bright lights near a window or under bright interior lighting. Avoid putting it in any kind of draft, hot or cold.

Temperature: Your poinsettia will last longer if kept relatively cool. (65°-70° F / 18°-21° C) A poinsettia does NOT like being near a hot wood stove.

Watering: Keep soil evenly moist. It’s best to check your plants at least twice a week by sticking your finger right into the soil. Water when the soil begins to feel dry to your touch but BEFORE your poinsettia wilts.

DO NOT OVERWATER. This is probably the number one cause of root rot. If your poinsettia pot comes in foil wrap, remove it or cut holes in it. Place a saucer under the pot, but, again, DO NOT let your poinsettia sit in water for any length of time.

Fertilizer: Feed your poinsettia lightly perhaps once a month with a liquid houseplant food.

Following these steps should give you a good chance at enjoying the splendid beauty of your poinsettia right up to garden-planting time.

You can actually plant your poinsettia in the garden, bring it inside in the autumn, and make it flower next Christmas. But that’s another story.

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