Poinsettia: how to keep it healthy for a long time

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:16 pm

For many people, the poinsettia is a firm part of the holidays and the Christmas season. But unfortunately, very few plants survive more than a few weeks after moving into their new home. To understand why this happens and how to successfully counteract it, a little knowledge about its origin and care requirements is necessary.

Briefly presented: The poinsettia

The poinsettia bears the wonderfully appropriate Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “the most beautiful” in European. This pretty plant is one of the most popular and best-selling houseplants in the world, and it is impossible to imagine our homes in winter without it. The poinsettia in the living room is a cultivated form, which is slightly different from the original wild form. The plant, which belongs to the spurge family, is found in the wild on the Pacific coast of South and Central America and is quite rare. Accordingly, both the cultivated and wild forms contain the white sap, which is poisonous and looks like milk.

Growth and shape

Poinsettia: how to keep it healthy for a long time

Both the wild and cultivated forms of poinsettia are evergreen perennial trees, which can reach a height of 4 meters. The wild form grows only slightly branched in height, the cultivated forms are somewhat more branched. The 10 to 25 cm long leaves are green and arranged in a star shape on the trunk; only the uppermost leaves (“bracts”) are red and are often mistaken for the flowers of the tree. These are inconspicuously whitish in color, very small, and located at the top of the plant midway between the bracts. However, the red leaves have an important purpose: they are there to attract potential pollinators and are shed after flowering, which lasts from November to January. Today there are countless cultivars with different colored bracts; for example, instead of red, they can be white, yellow, pink or variegated (green and white spotted).

Cultural significance

As December approaches, we find numerous poinsettias in various colors in stores, sometimes even sprayed with artificial snow and glitter. Whether in the supermarket, garden center or even at the weekly market, we encounter the colorful stars everywhere. No wonder, because of its great leaves, it is a popular gift or souvenir during the Christmas season. However, it is not only pretty to look at, but has an important meaning in many different cultures and there are numerous legends surrounding it. In its native Mexico, it is said to have been cultivated first and foremost by the Aztecs, for whom it symbolized peace and purity. In the USA, the plant even has its own day dedicated to it: the so-called “Poinsettia Day”. This is the anniversary of the death of Joel Poinsett, who brought the plant to the USA in the 19th century. From there, the poinsettia continued to Europe and eventually spread successfully around the world. Nowadays, the poinsettia stands for love and hope in the Western world and is supposed to bring a little light into the dark season.

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Poinsettia: how to keep it healthy for a long time
In the wild, poinsettia grows as a tall tree

Why is my poinsettia dying?

Poinsettias are wonderful plants and bring a festive mood into the house during the dark season. But there’s a catch: the poinsettia usually doesn’t live very long. Often it takes only a few weeks (or even days for some) before they drop their pretty leaves, more and more yellow spots appear, the foliage dries out and the former splendor finally sinks sadly to the ground. We already know that it is a perennial, evergreen and perennial plant; purely theoretically, it must then be possible to keep the poinsettia alive and cultivate it – right?

Cultivation and import: From sun to frost

Nevertheless, most poinsettias give up their spoon after a short time in our country. The causes are manifold and lead to the death of the plant.

The heat-loving and sensitive plant is mostly grown in southern regions with a lot of sun (e.g. in the USA or Africa) and then brought to us by plane in winter. In the process, conventionally grown plants are heavily treated with pesticides and chemicals that inhibit height growth (so-called “tourniquets”) and have other crazy effects on the plant. This is very harmful for the environment on the one hand, but also for the workers and plants on the other hand. The transport afterwards is the next hurdle: from the cozy greenhouse it goes into the dark and mostly also much too cold plane or truck. Once here in Europe, the poinsettia is then greeted by rain, snow, cold and wind, which only gets to it even more.

After the hardships of the long journey, the plants then arrive in the stores, where they are usually placed in a clearly visible position next to entrances, cash registers and other draughty places – the cold shock continues. If the poinsettia then wanders onto the checkout conveyor belt, it must somehow be brought home to us; the journey across the cold parking lot also puts a strain on the sensitive plant. Once in the living room, the new location has nothing in common with the greenhouse in which the plant was grown: it is far too dark. And most of us – let’s face it – have no idea how to properly care for poinsettia either. Of course, not all plants that you find in stores are necessarily doomed to death; if you already pay attention to some aspects when buying and take care of it conscientiously, your poinsettia will become a long and faithful companion. How to do this, we now look in detail.

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Location and care

The care of the poinsettia is really no witchcraft and with a few little tricks it forms the great, colorful bracts again next winter. First of all, it should be said that the poinsettia is very sensitive and reacts sensitively to care errors. But once you get the hang of it, it handles very well.

To thrive, it needs a location that is as bright as possible and protected from drafts. If you want to ventilate it, you should put it away for as long as possible or choose the place so that there is no draught. It also does not tolerate direct heating. This may sound a bit petty, but it can be the death blow for a sensitive and already stressed plant. It is important to avoid waterlogging and to keep the plant a little too dry rather than too wet. The roots are slightly succulent (i.e., they are somewhat thickened and store water), which indicates that the plant copes better with drought. If the top 1 to 2 inches of soil are dry, you can water moderately. Except for the dormant period after flowering, poinsettia needs constantly warm temperatures (18 to 20 degrees). If it is too cold, it will drop its leaves. Since it likes it as bright as possible, an electric plant lamp is useful in winter in our latitudes. However, if it is too dark, the leaves turn yellow. The nutrient needs of the plant are rather moderate and it is sufficient if you give some organic fertilizer about May and then every 1 to 2 weeks until October.

If the flowering comes to an end in January, the poinsettia needs a rest in a dark and cool place at about 10 degrees. During this period, it also needs very little water. You can check out the guide to overwintering lemon for this – it’s on “winter break” earlier, but the care and site requirements are pretty much the same. If it’s warm enough starting in May or June, the poinsettia should then move outside to a sheltered, warm, partial shade location. By the way, at this time the foliage is completely green. Now is also the best time to repot the poinsettia and cut it back if necessary. If it is to produce its magnificent, colorful bracts again the following winter, it should only receive a maximum of 12 hours of light a day between October and December; then simply cover the plant with a cardboard box or move it into a dark chamber. From then on, the poinsettia must move back into the warm room anyway.

Care in summary:

  • bright, protected from drafts and direct heating air location.
  • temperatures between 18 and 20 degrees are perfect
  • moderate water requirement: avoid waterlogging!
  • fertilize between May and October every 1-2 weeks
  • resting period after flowering (10 degrees, dark, little water)
  • maximum 12 hours of light between October and December, so that it forms colorful bracts and flowers again
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A little shopping guide

As we can see, the life of the poinsettia can be significantly extended with proper care. To make sure your efforts aren’t in vain, there are a few things you can look for ahead of time when buying:

  • The leaves should have a rich, vibrant color and not curl.
  • It’s better to stay away from plants that have been placed in the entrance area or in another drafty spot, and opt for those that are sheltered and warm (these plants are less likely to suffer consequential damage from being placed in the wrong spot).
  • Plants from nurseries or plant nurseries and of organic quality usually have the best chance of survival as opposed to those from the hardware store or supermarket.
  • In addition, many commercially available plants are treated with pesticides and other chemicals that are banned in Europe but are still used in producing countries and harm workers and the environment.
  • For the sake of the plants and the environment, choose ones that were grown in Europe (or at least not on the other side of the world); a look at the pot or care label will tell you. In reputable nurseries, they should be able to give you all the information on request.
  • Pack the plant on the way from the checkout to the car: wrap it in paper or something similar, so that it is protected from wind and cold (it can also resent the 10 meters across the parking lot!!).
Poinsettia: how to keep it healthy for a long time
The choice is wide: when buying, look for quality and healthy, vigorous plants

The most important thing in conclusion

Try not to be too dogged about the whole thing and have fun with it. Incoming plants can be quite frustrating, but we often don’t know what the poinsettia has been through on its journey. Sometimes, even with the best care, the plants just can’t be saved, no matter how much effort you put in. Next year it will definitely work out for it!

Author

  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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