Proper weather, care will keep poinsettias colorful past the holidays

The woody shrub can thrive best pretty much anywhere, but it’s the drafts in your home that result in leaf drop

OLATHE, Kan. – Poinsettias can add holiday cheer to your home, but they might not last until Christmas if not cared for properly under the right weather conditions.

Remember, poinsettias are tropical plants and do not like cold.

Horticulture agent Dennis Patton with the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension said the woody shrub could thrive best pretty much anywhere, but it’s the drafts in your home that result in leaf drop.

Since early summer, the full-sun plants have been growing in greenhouses to have ready for sale in late November. They will typically flower for 4 to 6 weeks. But the colorful bracts (which is why we enjoy the plant) can last for months if not cared for properly.

"I have had some retain the bracts well into May," Patton said. "Breeders have done a wonderful job of breeding plants that are more durable under all conditions and retain the bracts."

According to K-State Research and Extension, the plant is not toxic unless you eat numerous leaves, and you can consider it safe around children and pets.

Caring for poinsettias

After bringing it home from the store or nursery, you will want to take care of your poinsettia.

If temperatures outside dip below 40 degrees, you should wrap the plant and pot in paper before taking it outdoors. Also, try purchasing them at the end of the shopping trip to avoid chilling. A slight draft can cause the leaves to drop.

"Once at home, room temperature is ideal away from hot and cold drafts," Patton said. "They also prefer to be evenly moist, with a little on the drier side is better than to wet."

As for the amount of sunlight, Patton said it does not matter since most people discard them after the holiday season.

"Bright light would be best for longer life. But even in the interior of the home with proper care should hold up through the season," Patton said.

Proper watering is vital to help ensure that the leaves and colorful bracts are retained. It would be best never to let the plant dry out or sit in water. It is best to use lukewarm or room temperature water, and there is no need to fertilize through the holiday season.

Why are poinsettias considered winter plants?

We typically only see poinsettias on the market in the winter. However, they bloom with short days and long nights in nature.

"Keep in mind the bloom we see is really bracts, or modified leaves. This is the colorful part," Patton said. "The bloom, or flower, is the little green or yellow BB in the center of the colorful bracts."

Flowering is triggered back in August and September with shorter days.

"In their native ranges, Mexico, they naturally flower in the fall or winter," Patton said. 

History of the poinsettia

Once cultivated by the Aztecs, poinsettias were a symbol of purity. The bracts were used for dyes, and the sap helped thwart fevers. 

In 1825, they were introduced to the United States by Joel Robert Poinsett, an ambassador to Mexico. He found the plants growing in the wild at heights of 10 feet.

After sending them to his home greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina, he gave them to his friends and eventually found their way into commercial production.