Keeping poinsettias alive through the year

Happy New Year! Don’t you get a bit sad when Christmas time comes to an end? I do! Eating those last sweets in January, storing boxes full of decorations, seeing your poinsettias lose their leaves like crazy… While we can’t make Christmas last longer or buy Christmas sweets all year round, we might be able to keep our poinsettias alive until next December. Seems impossible? Well, it isn’t!

Happy New Year!

It’s counter intuitive, but poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are native from Mexico, can’t endure cold weather and their red “petals” are actually modified leaves (known as “bracts”). These bracts are around the real flower, which is that tiny, yellowish thing in the center. How to take care of this odd plant?

Red poinsettia
A bit of botany!

November, December and January

Any exposure, even a short one, to temperatures below 13-15ºC will cause rapid leaves loss, without any possible solution. To avoid this, don’t buy plants which are displayed outside the shop and wrap them in paper or plastic during the journey home. It’s ok to “squeeze” it a bit with the wrapping, as long as it’s for a short time.

To keep your poinsettia alive and happy, put it in a well light area, but away from direct sunlight. This may limit its possibilities as living-room Christmas decoration, but hey, it’s a living thing. That’s what plastic plants are for (ew!). Water thoroughly (until water starts coming out of the drainage holes) when the soil feels almost dry to the touch. Make sure it drains well. Never leave the pot sitting on a saucer full of water, as poinsettias are prone to root rot.

To keep the flowering (tiny flowers + red bracts) going, keep humidity levels constant. This might be difficult in a house, but there are some tricks and tips:

  • Place several plants close together to retain humidity from evapotranspiration.
  • Spray water on them every now and then
  • Place them away from heaters and fireplaces
  • Bathrooms and kitchens are usually more humid environments
  • If you have a humidifier (who has that?), use it!

Finally, bear in mind that the optimal temperature for poinsettias is 15-20ºC and that they do not tolerate drafts and draughts. It’s ok if the temperature of your house is a bit over 20ºC, but this will shorten the life of the flowers.

February, March and April

When bracts and flowers are gone, it’s time to fertilize and water a little less often. I’d water when the soil feels completely dry to the touch from now on.

In spring, the plant should have started sprouting. Then it’d be time to prune: cut the old branches to 10-15 cm height to create a nicely shaped shrub. Leave 2-4 leaves in each pruned branch. If you think it’s time to repot, do it in spring.

You can take poinsettias out of the house when frosts have stopped, but remember the light, temperature and humidity conditions that this plant requires when you choose the spot in the garden or balcony.

Pink poinsettia
Pink poinsettia.

May, June, July, August and September

During the summer months, keep watering and avoid extreme heat. After the autumn equinox, start watering more (like you did when you bought it).

If it starts dropping its leaves, it could be a consequence of a dry environment, high temperatures or droughts. Change its placement before it’s too late!

Christmas

October, November and back to the start

Place the plant indoors before the first frosts. Now the magic starts. Flowering is triggered by constant temperatures around 18ºC and the short days and long nights typical of winter. When this situation lasts for 2 weeks or so, red (or pink) coloring starts appearing. Thus, you have to make sure that the poinsettia spends 12-13 hours a day in complete darkness, without any natural or artificial light, starting at the end of October or the beginning of November. You can achieve this darkness by covering the plant with a box, putting it in a closet, or placing it in a dark room. When the coloring has appeared, you can stop the light-dark cycle and go back to taking care of it just like you did last year when you bought it.

Poinsettias require all this care and attention when they are grown outside their natural distribution areas (Mexico). They are a bit of work, but it’s a nice achievement to make them flower again on their second Christmas. Try it! 😀

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