Guide to Selection and Care of Poinsettias

Care and How To

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is one of the most popular potted flowers in the United States and one of the most beautiful symbols of the holiday season. These colorful plants can be found in nearly every household or business during the December holiday season. Careful selection and proper care of these festive plants will insure enjoyment during the entire holiday season.Red and white poinsettia


Selection  |  Care Reblooming  |  Managing Problems  |  Is it Poisonous?  |  History  |  FAQs  |  More Information


Selecting the Best Poinsettia

Types

Poinsettias are available in red, pink, white, and gold.  Marbled and bicolored poinsettias are also available.  Modern varieties are compact, durable, and hold their bracts for several weeks. The colorful part of the poinsettia commonly referred to as the plant’s flowers are actually modified leaves or bracts.  The true flowers are yellow to green, button-like objects located in the center of the bracts. 

What to Look For in the Garden Center

When selecting a poinsettia, choose a plant with dark green foliage and brightly colored bracts.  The leaves and bracts should not have yellow or brown spots or edges.  The true flowers (the yellow to green, button-like objects located in the center of the colorful bracts) should be shedding little or no pollen. 

Avoid poinsettias with wilted foliage or few to no lower leaves.  The branches of poinsettia are easily broken or partially broken when moved around.  Check for broken or partially broken stems and handle them carefully to ensure you don't break any branches after purchasing. 

Also, check the plant for insects.  No one wants to bring an insect-infested poinsettia into the home. 


Care for Your Poinsettia

When given good care, poinsettias should remain attractive for several weeks, well after the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays.

Protect From the Cold

To prevent damage from cold temperatures, purchase the poinsettia at the end of the shopping trip, place the poinsettia in a plant sleeve or carefully wrap it before going outdoors, and set the plant in a heated vehicle.  Most garden centers and greenhouses will wrap the plant for you but many big box stores do not.  You may have to request a bag or sleeve to wrap the plant yourself.  Exposure to freezing temperatures, even for a brief moment, may cause the leaves to blacken and drop. 

poinsettia in sleeve
Display a poinsettia near a bright window away from hot or cold drafts.

Provide an Ideal Indoor Location

As soon as you get home, carefully unwrap the poinsettia.  It is usually best to carefully cut off the protective sleeve rather than attempt to slide the sleeve down and off.  Place it near a sunny window or other well-lit area.  Do not let the plant touch the cold window pane.  Also, keep the poinsettia away from cold drafts or heat sources such as exterior doors that open and shut or heat registers  Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 60 and 70°F. 

Watering

Water needs can be determined with your finger.  Check the potting soil daily.  When the soil surface becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until water begins to flow out the bottom of the pot.  The pots of most poinsettias are placed inside decorative pot covers.  When watering a poinsettia, carefully remove the pot cover, water the plant in the sink, then set the poinsettia back into the pot cover. 

Improper watering is responsible for most poinsettia problems in the home.  Keeping plants too wet (watering too frequently or allowing water to collect in the decorative pot cover) often results in the yellowing and loss of the poinsettia’s lower leaves.  Leaves will curl and drop when plants are allowed to get too dry. 


Getting Your Poinsettia to Rebloom

Poinsettias are intended to be temporary plants.  Compost or dispose of the plant after the holidays when you grow tired of it or it becomes unattractive.  

For those home gardeners who enjoy a challenge, it is possible to get a poinsettia to bloom again next season by following the steps below.  

December to March

Provide good care as described above.  Place in a bright location with consistent temperatures and water when needed.

March to Late May

Cut the stems back to within 4 to 6 inches of the soil in March.  The poinsettia may also be repotted at this time.  When new growth appears, place the poinsettia in a sunny window.  Continue to water the plant when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch.  Fertilize every 2 weeks with a dilute fertilizer solution. 

Late May to Mid-September

In late May, move the poinsettia outdoors.  Harden or acclimate the plant to the outdoors by placing it in a shady, protected area for 2 or 3 days, then gradually expose it to longer periods of direct sun.  The poinsettia should be properly hardened in 7 to 10 days. 

Once hardened, dig a hole in an area that receives 6 to 8 hours of sunlight and set the pot into the ground.  Plants easily grown large and lanky.  To obtain a compact, bushy plant, pinch or cut off the shoot tips once or twice from late June to mid-August.  Continue to water and fertilize the plant outdoors. 

Mid-September to December

The poinsettia should be brought indoors in mid-September.  Place the plant in a bright, sunny window. 

The poinsettia is a short-day plant.  Short-day plants grow vegetatively during the long days of summer and produce flowers when the day length becomes shorter in fall.  To get the poinsettia to flower for Christmas, the plant must receive complete darkness from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am daily from early October until the bracts develop good color, usually early December.  Protect the plant from light by placing it in a closet or by covering it with a box. 

During the remainder of the day, the poinsettia should be in a sunny window. Keep the plants well-watered and fertilize every 2 weeks during the forcing period.  While poinsettias are difficult to flower in homes, proper care can reward home gardeners with a colorful plant for the holiday season.   

speckled poinsettia
The true flowers of poinsettia are the small greenish-yellow "buttons" in the center of the colorful bracts.  


Managing Insects, Diseases, and Other Problems

A few common problems can arise with poinsettia that can drastically reduce the time you get to enjoy the plant around the holidays.  Good selection and care will prevent these problems from occurring.  Below are suggestions for identifying and solving common problems that may arise.

Leaves and Bracts Wilt and Turn Black

Cold damage is the likely cause when leaves and bracts, especially those on the top or outside edges of the plant, wilt and/or turn black.  Leaves eventually fall off and depending on the severity of the damage, the entire plant may die. 

There is no cure for the problem. Prevention is key. Always cover any exposed part of the plant with a bag or sleeve.  Most garden centers and greenhouses will wrap the plant for you but many big box or grocery stores do not.  You may have to request a bag or sleeve to wrap the plant yourself.  Exposure to freezing temperatures, even for a brief moment, may cause damage.  Move plants from the warm store directly to a warm car and then into your warm house as quickly as possible.  Don't leave plants in cars while you finish shopping at other stores.  The poinsettia should be the last thing you buy before going home.

Leaves Drop

The leaf drop is likely due to some type of environmental stress. Improper watering is the most common reason for leaf drop on the poinsettia. Over-watering will cause the lower leaves to turn yellow and drop. Plants that are allowed to get too dry will wilt and also drop leaves. 

The water needs of a poinsettia can be determined with your finger. Check the potting soil daily.  When the soil becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until water begins to flow out of the bottom of the pot.

The pots of most poinsettias are set inside decorative pot covers. When watering these plants, carefully remove the poinsettia from the pot covering, water the plant in the sink, then drop the poinsettia back into its pot cover.  Never allow water to collect and sit in the pot cover or saucer.

Also, make sure the poinsettia is not located near a heat source or cold draft. Warm, dry air blowing across the plant from a furnace register or rapid temperature fluctuations, such as near a door, can also cause leaf drop. 

Suddenly Wilts and Dies

The sudden death of the poinsettia was likely due to root rot.  Pythium and Rhizoctonia root rots typically occur when plants are watered too frequently and the potting soil is kept saturated.  Allow the surface of the potting soil to dry to the touch before watering poinsettias.  Also, don’t allow the poinsettia pots to sit in water.  Discard excess water which drains into pot coverings or saucers.  

Small White Flies Flutter When I Move the Plant

The small, white insects are likely whiteflies.  Whiteflies are common insect pests of poinsettia, hibiscus, chrysanthemum, and a number of other indoor plants.  They are most often noticed when watering or handling a plant.  When disturbed, whiteflies flutter about the plant for a short time before returning to the plant.  

Whitefly adults are small, white, moth-like insects.  Female adults lay eggs on the undersides of the plant’s foliage.  After 5 to 7 days, the eggs hatch into small, pale green, immature insects called nymphs.  The nymphs crawl a short distance before settling down to feed for 2 to 3 weeks.  After feeding for 2 to 3 weeks, the nymphs progress to a nonfeeding stage and then finally to the adult stage.  

The nymph and adult stages of whiteflies feed by inserting their short, needle-like beaks into foliage and sucking out plant sap.  Heavy whitefly infestations may cause stunting or yellowing of leaves, leaf drop, and a decline in plant health.  

Whiteflies on poinsettias and other indoor plants are extremely difficult to control.  Prevention is the best management strategy.  When purchasing plants, carefully check for whiteflies and other insects.  Avoid purchasing insect-infested plants.  Insecticides are not a good control option as they are not very effective.  It’s often best to tolerate the presence of a small infestation of whiteflies on a poinsettia and then promptly discard the plant after the holidays. 

greenhouse full of poinsettias
Poinsettias are one of the most popular potted plants produced in greenhouses.


Is the Poinsettia Poisonous? 

The poinsettia has long been regarded as poisonous.  However, research conducted at various institutions has shown that poinsettia is not poisonous.  In one study 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposures reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers were studied.  In these cases, 98.9% were accidental in nature and 93.1% involved children.  There were no fatalities and less than five percent of exposures caused enough concern to seek treatment at a medical facility. 

While the poinsettia is not poisonous, it is not intended for human or animal consumption.  Individuals are still advised to keep the poinsettia out of the reach of small children and pets.  It has an unpleasant taste and on rare occasions (less than 8% of exposures) causes gastric upset, vomiting, and diarrhea.

One potential health problem associated with poinsettia is dermatitis or irritation to the skin.  When a poinsettia stem is cut or broken, milky sap oozes from the wound.  Some individuals may develop a skin irritation if the milky sap comes in contact with their skin. 

More information can be found at the National Poison Control Center, the National Library of Medicine, the Ohio State University, and the New York Botanical Garden.


History of the Poinsettia

The poinsettia is native to Mexico. In Mexico, the poinsettia is a large shrub or small tree that may reach a height of 10 to 15 feet.  

Poinsettias were cultivated by the Aztecs, who called the plant Cuetlaxochitl. They used the colorful bracts to make a reddish purple dye. The poinsettia’s milky sap was used to treat fevers.  

After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias began to be used in Christian ceremonies. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their nativity processions.  

Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the United States Minister (ambassador) to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Poinsett had plants sent to his home in Greenville, S.C. He then distributed plants to botanical gardens and horticultural friends, including John Bartram of Philadelphia and the Ecke family of California who still breed, grow, and sell poinsettias today.  

The popularity of the poinsettia as a holiday plant grew rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century with the development of shorter, free-branching, longer-lived cultivars. Plant breeders also expanded the color range of the poinsettia. Poinsettias are now available in red, pink, white, and gold. Variegated and marbled poinsettias also are available. Today, the poinsettia is the number one flowering potted plant in the United States.


pink poinsettia
This is type of poinsettia has a bract that is a pinkish-yellow hue.

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Aaron Steil Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Aaron Steil is the consumer horticulture extension specialist at Iowa State University where he works with county Extension offices across the state to answer home gardening questions for all Iowans.  This includes information related to trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials, ...

Last Reviewed: 
October, 2022