By John Wilson, Extension Educator
It seems like I talk about this every year, but I recently had a call from a concerned parent wondering if poinsettias were poisonous. It seems that their young child found one of these within reach and must have decided the leaves looked like a fresh change from lettuce. They were very relieved when I assured them that poinsettias are not poisonous and they are safe to have in homes with young children and pets.
However, poinsettias are not edible and it could be expected that, if eaten in quantity, they may cause stomach upset and possible vomiting. This might happen if an overactive puppy devoured an entire plant.
However, no one wants a stomach ache during the holidays so it’s best to keep any holiday plant out of reach of pets and small children. Holiday plants that are toxic and should not be used in homes with young children and pets, or placed high where they are not accessible, include azaleas, rhododendron, Jerusalem cherry, mistletoe, Christmas holly, and Japanese yew.
Now that you know that poinsettias are not poisonous, here are several other things you might not know about this holiday flower. Poinsettias are the most popular flowering potted plant in the United States, even though most are sold only during a short, six-week holiday season!
Native to Mexico, poinsettias are a perennial flowering shrub. They were introduced into the United States in 1825 by Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Over 100 varieties of poinsettia are available in red, pink, white and gold, often with unusual leaf coloration including speckles or streaks of color. However, most people still prefer the traditional red blooming variety.
When choosing a poinsettia, look for a full, well-branched plant with good color development in the showy bracts and dark green leaves. Avoid plants with wilted foliage, or those with few leaves at the base, which can indicate health problems. A fresh plant will have little or no yellow pollen showing on the true flowers, the small cluster of round yellowish buds in the center of the colorful bracts.
Also avoid plants with small white gnat-like insects that fly out of the plant when it is touched, or are found on the undersides of the leaves. These insects, called whiteflies, are a common greenhouse pest. Once in your home, they can fly and infest other houseplants and are very difficult to control. However, don’t confuse droplets of white milky sap that may be found on stems or leaves with whiteflies. Poinsettias are in the euphoria, or spurge family and normally have white, milking sap.
In your home, place a poinsettia where it will receive lots of sunlight and cool night temperatures around 60-65 degrees F. Keep the plant away from very cold drafts and furnace vents that will dry the plant out quickly and possibly even scorch the leaves. The soil should remain evenly moist, but not soggy. About two weeks after bringing the plant home, fertilize it with a complete fertilizer.
Depending on several cultural factors, your poinsettia will do one of two things after the holidays… hold onto its leaves or drop its leaves. If the plant holds its leaves, treat it like any houseplant. Leave it in a sunny location and apply a complete, water soluble fertilizer once every two weeks.
If the plant loses its leaves, place it in a bright, cool location (50-55° F), such as on a basement window ledge, but avoid locations with temperatures above 60° F. Let the soil dry out, but never let it get so dry that the stems start to shrivel. Allow the plant to rest in this condition until spring. In late April or early May cut back the stems to 3-5 inches from the soil and place it in a bright, warm location, watering whenever the soil dries out. New growth will begin to emerge. Pinch the new shoots back when they reach 4-6 inches in length to encourage bushiness. The plant can be set out-of-doors when the night temperatures stay above 60 degrees.
In fall before the first frost bring the plant indoors to a sunny location, but check the plant over thoroughly to be sure you aren’t bringing in insects, too. Beginning about September 25, poinsettias need 15 hours of complete darkness every day (i.e. – from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m.). Cover the plant with a cardboard box or put it in a closet. Be sure to bring the plant back out into sunny conditions during the day. Continue this dark treatment until the bracts begin to show color. Your poinsettia will bring holiday cheer to your home for years to come!