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One of the most wonderful plants and delightful decorations at Christmas is the poinsettia. Even though poinsettias are native to Mexico, today they are the most popular flowering potted plants in the United States. The poinsettia is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820's. He is credited to having introduced the poinsettia into the United States.

According to legend, the poinsettia's association with Christmas and as a prized flower began in 16th century Mexico. Although there are various versions of the details, the tale recounts of a poor young child who was unable to buy a gift for the village's church celebration of Jesus' birthday. Heart-broken, the child was inspired to find any gift for the Christmas child, knowing that the most humble gift, if given in love, will be accepted. The child then gathered a handful of common weeds from the roadside and placed them in front of the church altar and Nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into brilliant crimson flowers resembling a star. The event was considered by all to be a Christmas miracle. From then on, the weeds or poinsettias were known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.

Although most Christmas poinsettias are red and green, there is a wide array of other colors, including pink, white, orange, marbled, pale green, and cream. The bright red parts of the poinsettia are called bracts and are actually modified leaves, not flowers. The poinsettia flower is small, green or yellow, and situated in the middle of the bracts.

To help keep your poinsettia looking great throughout the Christmas holidays, start first by selecting a good plant without many flaws. Choose one that has foliage all the way to the base of the plant and can support its own weight without the need for a string or wire. The plant you choose should have flowers that are just beginning to open, or better still, the plant should have fully colored bracts with the flower buds still very tightly closed. You can expect the appearance of the plant to decline somewhat after the flowers have fully opened and have fallen off. Don't buy a poinsettia that has disfigured or discolored leaves, shriveled or yellowed leaves, or damaged stems, leaves, or bracts.

After bringing your poinsettia home, you need to take several steps to keep it healthy and flowering. While all plants and flowers have a limited life, you should be able to enjoy a poinsettia for 4 to 6 weeks.

Keep your poinsettia in a location that receives bright, indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight could discolor the bracts. On the other hand, low light can cause the plant to lose some of its leaves. Consider displaying it in a shady location like the dining room table, but maintaining it near a window.

Water often as the poinsettia needs it - when the potting mix becomes visibly dry or the potted plant feels much lighter in weight. If allowed to dry out too much, the plant will wilt and drop its leaves. Conversely, poinsettias will not tolerate extreme moisture or standing in water. This could result in root rot, which will cause the plant to decline.

Keep your poinsettia away from drafts and other major temperature changes, such as near doors, windows, and even heat vents. A blast of cold air of less than 50 °F will give a severe shock to your plant and may result in leaf drop or death. Try to maintain the room temperature at no higher than 70°F.

Fertilizer should not be a concern until after Christmas. Then you can use a soluble fertilizer at a rate of about ¼ teaspoon per gallon of water. This should be done once a month until April.

December 12th is National Poinsettia Day, named in honor of Joel Poinsett who died on this day in 1851. Merry Christmas and enjoy the flower of Christmas! For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office.

Shane Harris is a Regional Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System serving East Central Alabama.


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