It is that time of the year when we are busy trying to find ideal gifts for certain people on our holiday list. The gift of a plant is perfect for the person who has everything, the one who loves gardening or indoor plants and that special person who doesn’t have the means, time or space to decorate for the holidays. A Christmas plant always brings a smile to the receiver and will brighten a home now and for months to come.

There are a variety of plants we associate with the Christmas season such as amaryllis, anthurium, cactus, cyclamen, and rosemary. The most popular by far is the poinsettia.

Native Poinsettia

The Poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima is native of Mexico and Central America that was introduced to the United States in the 1820s by Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While visiting a certain region in Mexico, he noticed some unique plants growing on a hillside. He removed a few and sent them to his home in North Carolina. These plants grew well in his greenhouse and Poinsett began distributing them to his friends. The name ‘poinsettia’ soon became the accepted name of these colourful plants in English-speaking countries. It is also known as Bird-of-Paradise flower, Christmas flower or Flame-Leaf flower.

In its native homeland, the Poinsettia is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of one metre to about five metres. The Ancient Aztecs considered these plants a symbol of purity because of their brilliant red colour. They also used these plants to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication to reduce fevers. In Chile and Peru, it became known as the ‘Crown of the Andes’.

Poinsettias in our Region

Poinsettias in Canada are not hardy shrubs but are propagated and used as house plants. Many people do successfully keep them from year to year but it takes a special regimen to encourage reflowering. Most of us keep them just for one season and move them to the compost bin when they’re no longer colourful.

The most common colour choice is a deep vibrant red, which is my favourite. However, there is a wide array of other hues available, from creamy white to peachy pink and from speckled to marbled. The colourful parts of the poinsettia are not actually flowers but are called bracts, which are modified leaves.

How to Grow

The best colour for a poinsettia is achieved through exposure to hours of total darkness, then bright sunlight. Appropriate temperature, water, and fertilization will contribute to the colourful bracts. The actual flowers of these plants are the small green (when not opened) or yellow (when fully open) centre of the bracts.

These small little flowers can help you determine how fresh the Poinsettia is before you purchase it. If the centres of the poinsettia are tight and not showing any little red stamens with tiny yellow dots that means they are fresh and have not yet started to flower. This is a good sign that the poinsettia should last for about 3 weeks. If the buds in the centre are open, red and large, that poinsettia won’t last much more than a week.

Read More about growing poinsettias

Caring for Poinsettias

Poinsettias are easy to care for. I put mine in a place where it will receive a good amount of sunlight. East-facing windows work well as they catch the morning light but aren’t hit with hot direct afternoon sunlight. One caution – any leaves or bracts touching a windowpane during our Canadian winters will be damaged.

Water only when the plant is dry. Test by poking a finger into the soil or by lifting the pot to feel if its heavy with moisture or dried out and lightweight. If the plant is wilting you’re letting it dry out too much. Keep it away from cold drafts or heat sources.

Against a popular misconception, the Poinsettia is not poisonous and as well as adding beauty to your holiday décor it will even help purify your indoor air.

December 12th is National Poinsettia Day. So, as you are shopping for those ideal gifts for special people on your list, consider the Poinsettia – the plant that celebrates the season.

More about holiday season plants

Emma of Peterborough Master Gardeners offers this interesting take on the colourful plants we all mistakenly call Christmas cactus – Holiday Cactus Conundrum