Poinsettias for the Holidays

These traditional holiday plants last through the Christmas season and beyond.

By Dawn Angileri


Most poinsettias are sold during December, when their red, pink, and white hues speak to the season. The showy parts of the plant are not flowers, as most of us think, but are modified leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are in the center of the colorful bracts.

Native to southern Mexico and Central America, poinsettias are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico. He introduced the plants to the United States in 1825, and today they represent a $220 million business.

Selecting a Poinsettia
When you choose a poinsettia for the holidays make sure:

  • There is little or no yellow pollen showing on the flower clusters in the center of the bracts.
  • The plant has healthy looking, dark green foliage down to the soil line, with no drooping, wilted, fallen, or yellowed leaves.
  • The bracts are completely colored and not greening around the edges.
  • The poinsettia looks full and balanced from all sides.
  • The plant is two and a half times taller than the diameter of the pot.
  • The pot is not wrapped in paper, foil, or plastic sleeves. This promotes deterioration.
  • The plants are not displayed too close together, which causes premature bract loss.
  • The plant is not wilted although the soil is moist – an indication of root rot.
  • You can see flowers at the base of the colored bracts. If they are green or red-tipped and fresh looking, the bloom will "hold" longer than if covered with yellow pollen.

Poinsettia Care
With care, poinsettias should retain their beauty for weeks and some varieties will stay attractive for months.

When you take it home, make sure the poinsettia is wrapped properly, as even a few minutes of exposure to low temperatures can damage the bracts and leaves. Put it somewhere with no more than six hours of daylight and away from cold windows and drafts. Poinsettias like daytime temperatures between 60° and 70°F. and overnight temperatures around 55°F. 

Water when the soil feels dry and make sure the pot drains well. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water for very long. The excess moisture promotes wilting.

If you want to keep the glorious plant after the holidays, fertilize it with a brand suitable for house plants. Apply fertilizer once a month, except when the poinsettia is in bloom. 

Are They Poison?
There is a common misconception that poinsettias are toxic, a rumor that found voice in 1919 when a two-year-old child died after consuming a poinsettia leaf. In reality, the plant is best classified as “possibly toxic” or “not poisonous.” According to the Parkland Poison Control Information Center, the average adult would have to eat 500 to 700 leaves before he or she had a serious problem.         

In sensitive people, a leaf could cause digestive problems, and because Poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family, their milky latex sap can cause eye and skin irritations in others. 

Poinsettias are prized for their beauty and ease of care -- and for their ability to say happy holidays!