Do you remember the old Frosty the Snowman movie, where Frosty and Karen are trying to get to the North Pole and escape the evil magician, but Karen gets really cold (she really wasn’t dressed for an expedition to the North Pole) and they suddenly discover a greenhouse in the middle of the forest that’s growing Christmas Poinsettias? No? Well, that might be one of my favorite parts of the movie. The thought of a greenhouse full of tropical plants in the middle of a winter-y woods sounds very cozy.
The point of this trip down memory lane: the Christmas poinsettias.
Perhaps seen more as a holiday decoration that an actual “houseplant”, I’ve elected to showcase the poinsettia here as the first in my houseplant series despite its ephemeral nature. It just seems fitting, considering the approaching Christmas holiday. Also, I bought a really lovely one yesterday from the university plant shop and since I don’t have a Christmas tree yet, it’s making my house feel suddenly very festive.
Native to Central and South America where it grows as a shrub, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is perhaps the most well known member of the euphorbia (or spurge) family. Typical of other spurges, the poinsettia has a milky, latexy sap that may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive folks. Also typical of the spurge family, are the brightly colored bracts that generally get mistaken for the flowers. The flowers are, in fact, quite small and inconspicuous. The colored bracts are actually modified leaves. The most common (and popular) color for poinsettias is red, but other colors such as white, pink, yellow, and speckled are also available. The different color patterns are due to genetic mutations, or chimerism. Because of this they are propagated through cuttings rather than seed (so if you wanted to save and plant the seeds from your poinsettia, don’t expect them to look quite like the one you harvested them from). They are also photoperiodic plants, meaning they need a certain amount of hours of darkness to initiate bract coloring – this is convenient for getting the plants at Christmas time when the nights are naturally longer (at least here in the Northern hemisphere), but can be inconvenient if that darkness is interrupted, even by something as seemingly-insignificant as a street light, which will delay or even halt the color formation. So, though they can be made to re-color at home, it’s probably just easier to buy them new each year from an experienced grower.
One concern that many people have with poinsettias is their reported toxicity. As I tell my students every year, the toxicity of a substance is dependent on the dose ingested. Studies have shown that for poinsettia, that a 50 pound child would have to consume at least 500 poinsettia leaves (in one sitting) to even approach the toxicity levels. The bitterness of the leaves would deter anyone from eating that many leaves at a time. Also, you’d have to have an awful lot of poinsettias around your home to get 500 leaves worth. That being said, those with really sensitive skin should avoid contact with the milky sap, as that may cause contact dermatitis. So, long story short: you’re not likely to be poisoned by eating a poinsettia leaf, but you may experience some skin irritation if you break a stem.
Once you bring your poinsettia home, though, there are some things you can do to keep it looking good throughout the holiday season.
- First, make sure you select a healthy looking speciman. If it looks sick at the shop, it will probably look sick at your house too.
- Second, remember that it is a plant, and as such will still need some light. Indirect light is preferred, but since you’ll probably be keeping it around for only a month or so, as long as it is getting some light it should continue to look nice.
- Third, even though it likes light, it doesn’t like cold drafts. So a windowsill situation is probably not the best choice. Don’t forget that they are tropical plants at heart, so keeping it in a warmer room in your house is probably a good idea.
- Fourth, know that poinsettias like to stay consistently moist – translation: you’ll need to water it more often that a lot of your other houseplants. Check the top of the soil every day or every other day and if it feels dry, water it. It will let you know if it’s not getting enough water – it’s quick to wilt and can make you think that maybe you’ve killed it. But, it’s also fairly resilient, so don’t fret…just water it thoroughly and make a mental note to water it more frequently.
If you keep these four points in mind, you should be able to enjoy your poinsettia throughout the holiday season.
P.S. If you’d like to read about the legend of the poinsettia there are lots of versions available, but my personal favorite is the illustrated re-telling by Tomie daPaola.