When I was a teenager, the holiday season left me traumatized and slightly on edge. I blame it on poinsettias. I worked, often alone, in an all-glass greenhouse. It was a huge, isolated place. A beacon for kids with rocks. Attached to the greenhouse was a small barn that held feed for farm animals. The greenhouse was separated into three areas. The front house, the smaller of the two, housed a collection of African violets, jade and other common house plants. A cash register, planting supplies and an assortment of high-end dog foods filled the middle room. The back greenhouse was magical. Fragrant stephanotis scrambled up and over supports. Trays of flowers and veggies swallowed the tables.
Everything changed in early August when the poinsettia plugs arrived.
The Dark Side
Poinsettias are day-length sensitive plants. Prolonged periods of darkness and cooler night-time temperatures trigger their bloom cycle. My charges, all 3,000 of them, required complete darkness from sunset to sunrise. Things got creepy as the days grew shorter. I was a kid alone with my imagination in a pitch-black glass house. The only lights allowed to remain on after sunset were those around my cash register and the dim fluorescents in the front greenhouse that flickered when the wind slammed the glass.
With every slurp of the cistern, whir of the ventilation system or howl of the wind, I fought the urge to flick on the lights. If only for a moment, to confirm that I was indeed alone. Cumulatively, those daily moments of weakness over the course of many weeks, if succumbed to, would mean the poinsettia crop wouldn’t flower in time for the holidays and I’d be out of a job.
So I busied myself with bow-making. Thank God for bows. The owner’s wife showed me how to make them to adorn the poinsettias. I became a bow-making machine. By the end of every evening, the counter around the cash register was buried in red, green, white, blue, pink and purple puffs of satiny ribbon.
Despite the distraction, the fear lingered. The co-owner took every opportunity to capitalize on it. He’d quietly enter the greenhouse through the feed barn, rip the side door open and charge in. It was terrifying.
The upside, if there can be one to this, is that I learned a lot about poinsettia. And every member of my family got a poinsettia for Christmas. It was part of the “perk” package.
How to Care for Poinsettia
After selecting the plant, be sure to wrap it carefully so that it’s protected from cold as it transitions from the grower to its new home. Even a few minutes of exposure can spell disaster.
Position in an area that receives bright indirect light, but away from heating vents and drafty areas.
Daytime temperatures around 70°F are ideal. If possible, relocate it to a cooler room in the evening. Warm temperatures all day will shorten it’s life.
Check soil daily for dryness. If the top inch is dry, give it a drink. Be sure to either remove the sleeve, if it came with one, or punch holes in it to allow water to drain. With proper care, a poinsettia will look good for six to eight weeks.
If you’re planning to keep it past the holiday season, feed monthly with a houseplant fertilizer. My grandmother would keep hers well into April when all that remained was a skeleton of its former self.
Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiceae family, many of which ooze a milky sap when bracts are broken. Latex allergy sufferers can develop skin reactions to the sap.
Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. A study conducted at Ohio State University confirmed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to become ill. Pets may develop some gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea with ingestion.
The parts of the plant often called flowers are actually modified leaves called bracts. The flower is the tiny yellow or green center at the top of the leaf bunch.
Native to Mexico and Central America, the poinsettia is a perennial shrub reaching heights of 10-15 feet.
The poinsettia is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico who introduced the plant to the United States. To commemorate his death in 1851, December 12 was declared National Poinsettia Day.
Do you have a favorite color poinsettia?