Keep Your Poinsettia Looking Good This Holiday Season

What is a Poinsettia?

Appearance and colors

Also known as a Christmas starflower (but not to be confused with Lysimachia borealis, a perennial herb of the primrose family that’s commonly called a starflower), the Poinsettia ranks right up there with mistletoe as a classic symbol of the holidays.

“Poinsettia” is a common name for Euphorbia pulcherrima, a shrubby plant with dark green foliage. The species looks pretty unassuming for most of the year, but a real spectacle starts when the plant starts blooming during the winter months. It will begin pushing out star-shaped bracts that look like the rest of the leaves, but are brightly colored. 

Naturally, these bracts are a fiery red, but nurseries have managed to selectively breed Poinsettias to produce all sorts of other colors:

  • White
  • Cream
  • Pink
  • Salmon
  • Light green
  • Marbled or speckled
Natural habitat

Euphorbia pulcherrima is naturally found in Central America, from Mexico to Guatemala. Here, wild plants are much lankier-looking than their domestic counterparts, but they can reach huge sizes and look like colorful trees. The Poinsettia is also an invasive species in various other countries in South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The species occurs in tropical to dry forests at moderate elevations. These habitats are characterized by their long dry seasons.

Sadly, Poinsettias aren’t as common in their natural range as they used to be. The species is still listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, but the database does note that its habitat is in continuous decline. Populations are highly fragmented, with low genetic diversity and the risk of the gene pool being muddled with domestic plants.

History and cultural significance

Poinsettia plants have a long, long history behind them. In Mexico, before colonization, the species was used by the Aztec peoples for various purposes: in traditional medicine, for decoration during the winter blooming period, to produce dye, and more. 

Once the Catholic Spanish conquerors arrived in Central America, they adopted the species for use in their existing Christmas rituals. That’s why Poinsettias are still called “flor de Nochebuena” (Christmas Eve flower) in this region. Interestingly, in Spain, the species is instead called “flor de Pascua”, which means Easter flower.

The story of the plant’s arrival in the US is that it was brought over by J.R. Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico, in the 1820s. Although there isn’t actually much evidence to corroborate this, the name stuck! From this point onward, nurseries began working on the wide variety of Poinsettias we know today. 

Nowadays, the Poinsettia has been noted by some studies to be the world’s most economically significant potted plant. A partial monopoly on the US and worldwide market is held by the Ecke family, which began their Poinsettia cultivation operations in the early 20th century. The plant is very widely cultivated in Central America for export around the world.

Poinsettia buying guide

If you’ve brought home Poinsettias for the holidays before, you’ll know these aren’t the easiest plants to keep alive (which is why some people opt for other types of holiday houseplants). Poinsettias often arrive at your home already stressed from shipping (or from being manhandled at the store), exposed to cold and either underwatered or overwatered.

This means that in many cases, you’re not exactly off to a good start. The species is also prone to leaf drop.

To improve the chances of your Poinsettia thriving during (and after) the holidays, look for these telltale signs of a healthy plant:

  • Lush, erect foliage
  • No leaf drop or browning/yellowing leaves
  • Soil is neither dry nor waterlogged
  • Flowers are still closed 
  • Not placed close to the doors in the shop (they don’t like the cold and draft)
  • Planter has drainage holes

Poinsettia care during the holidays

So how do you make sure your beautiful new Poinsettia at least makes it through the holidays?

I’ll give you a few of my tried-and-true tips here:

  • If your Poinsettia was packaged in a plastic plant sleeve, take it off as soon as you get home so your plant is exposed to light and air.
  • Remove the foil wrapping that may be around the pot, as it impedes drainage and can cause your new Poinsettia to drown.
  • Place your plant in a bright location by a window. You can move it to the Christmas table whenever you want to display it, but the rest of the time, it likes a nice and well-lit spot.
  • Keep Poinsettias away from sources of heat or cold. It won’t like to be by the heater or fireplace, nor close to drafty windows.
  • Speaking of temperature, Poinsettias like it warm (but not hot) during the day and slightly cooler (around 60°F) at night. The warmer your house, the faster your Poinsettia flowers will open up—meaning a shorter bloom time.
  • Keep the soil lightly moist using tepid water, never allowing the plant to stand in water for extended periods of time.

For those who want to enjoy their plant a little longer, next let’s dive into how to care for this species year-round and how to get it to rebloom next year.

Poinsettia care after the holidays

If your Poinsettia is still going strong after New Year, good job! Many people throw theirs out at this point, as it will go dormant and drop (almost) all of its foliage. Not exactly the most decorative thing to look at, I’ll admit that.

Still, there is no reason not to give keeping your Poinsettia alive year-round a shot. These aren’t the easiest houseplants, but I’ve seen some folks have success in reusing theirs for the holiday table year after year. Also, even if yours doesn’t make it, you can just try again next year.

The rest of winter

After the New Year, begin letting the soil go about halfway dry before watering again. In its natural habitat, things would be heading into dry season now. Poinsettias would go dormant, so you want to achieve something similar in the home.

Fall: making a Poinsettia rebloom

If you were growing your Poinsettia outdoors, in many climates, it’s time to bring it back in around September. Put it in a sunny window for now. You can continue to water as usual, but it’s time to start tapering off the fertilizer schedule.

If you want to see the plant bloom and color up well for the upcoming holiday season, you’ll have to start giving it some help around October.

The thing is—like many winter-blooming houseplants, including Cyclamen, amaryllis, and the aptly named Christmas (or Thanksgiving) cactus—this species knows it’s time to start producing flowers when the days begin to shorten in fall.