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Poinsettia Christmas flower history, plant care, poison myth | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Poinsettia Care: How to Keep Poinsettia Plants Alive

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The red poinsettia means Christmas to many, but it’s really a tropical euphorbia from Mexico.
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Doreen G. Howard
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Caring for Poinsettias—Especially after Christmas!

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Are your Christmas poinsettias still going strong? See our tips for keeping poinsettias alive well beyond the holidays.

Poinsettias: A Christmas Tradition

A week or two before Christmas, my Dad always gave my Mom a potted Poinsettia wrapped in shiny foil. And my Aunt Dodo had a nine-foot-tall one growing next to her front door. Bracts on it started turning pinkish around Halloween, then red, and remained ablaze until after Valentine’s Day.

For those unaware, the showy red parts of Poinsettia plants are not the flowers; rather, they are modified leaves known as bracts. The actual “flower” on a poinsettia plant is the yellow bloom found right at the center of the bracts.

After earning a degree in organic chemistry, which initiated my love of plants and growing them, it occurred to me that Poinsettias were the most unlikely flower to symbolize Christmas. They grow in warm climates, are native to Mexico and Central America, and are treated as pampered, delicate throw-away plants in most parts of this country! 

→ See the full story of the Poinsettia: An Unlikely Christmas Plant.

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Poinsettia’s Poison Myth

Let’s lay to rest once and for all the popular myth that poinsettias are dangerously poisonous.  

Thanks to an urban legend that began circulating in the early 1900s, it’s commonly believed that poinsettia leaves are toxic enough to kill a small child. In fact, poinsettias are not poisonous to a dangerous degree. According to the Poison Control Information Center, the average person would have to eat 500 to 700 leaves to see any harmful effects such as serious digestive problems. The USDA reports that it has no evidence of anyone dying from eating poinsettias.

Poinsettias are part of the genus Euphorbia, which includes many plants known for their white, milky, latex sap. Years ago, researchers at Ohio State University did indeed feed huge quantities of poinsettia parts to rats and no ill effects were seen. To replicate their test, a 50-pound child would have to eat 500 leaves. (That said, people with latex allergies can be sensitive to the milky sap and should be careful when handling the plants to avoid a rash.)

It’s still best not to have animals or children eating plants; the sap can cause a mildly upset tummy and skin irritation. Keep plants out of reach, but don’t treat them like poison ivy. Fortunately, poinsettia leaves have an awful taste that animals and children would have a hard time eating large amounts of them. 

On a related note, holly and mistletoe are toxic to children and pets. They will induce vomiting and diarrhea—and can even be fatal in large quantities. 

poinsettia-1461262_1920_full_width.jpgThe colored leaves, known as bracts, are not the poinsettia plant’s flowers.  They are the tiny yellow or orange buds in the center.

8 Poinsettia Plant Care Tips

Poinsettias are not frost-tolerant. As holiday plants, they are raised in greenhouses in cool temperatures (60° to 72°F) with high humidity and light intensity, so it can be tricky to duplicate the ideal environment for poinsettias.

To get the longest-lasting poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.

To get off to a good start, protect your new plant from cold temperatures and chilling winds on the way home from the store. As this is a tropical plant, don’t leave it in a cold car while you run other errands!

At home, follow these plant care tips:

  1. The plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color (at least 6 hours a day) so place near a well-lit window. East-facing windows are best.
  2. Keep it out of direct sun, which could fade or burn the leaves.
  3. Avoid spots near heating vents and doors. Cold drafts will cause leaves to drop. No part of the plant should touch the cold glass. Excess heat can dry out the plants too much.
  4. Keep temperatures between 65° and 70°F, ideally. Basically, maintain temperatures that are comfortable to people. Be sure to lower the thermostat at night so that plants cool off.
  5. Overwatering is a common cause of death, so only water when the top inch or two of soil feel dry to the touch. If underwatered, plants wilt and shed leaves. Overwatering causes roots to rot and die.
  6. Don’t let the plant sit in water. Be careful to remove any foil which may gather water. Don’t allow the saucers to fill with water. This causes the water in the saucer to continually keep the soil wet until it all evaporates. Treat the saucers like water catchers and 30 minutes or so after a good watering detach it in the sink and let it all drain out.
  7. No fertilizer is needed while the plant is in bloom.
  8. Use a humidifier or place plants on a tray filled with pebbles and water to increase relative humidity.

Learn how to keep amaryllis and other Christmas plants alive.