On holiday in Portugal one spring, I was intrigued to see a very familiar plant in very unfamiliar (to me, anyway) surroundings. Among the orange groves and ornately-tiled pavements was a municipal planter, out of it leaning a rather old and leggy poinsettia, with straggly woody stems, with small bracts at the end. The gentle warmth of the Algarve in March was a world away from the winter supermarket dashes that I tend to associate these plants with.
It was also a reminder that these often disposable house plants, frequently treated like a cut flower have the potential to last much longer than the twelve days of Christmas! Growing them is as ingrained a Christmas tradition as buying the bumper Radio Times and having one tin of Quality Street too many in the house and with a bit of effort they will last much, much longer than both. On a recent garden centre visit they were selling two poinsettias for less than the price of a pretentious coffee, so perhaps it’s no surprise that there ends up being one in so many living rooms every December.
More advice and inspiration:
- 15 of the best Christmas plants and flowers
- Five top tips for Christmas plants
- Celebrate flowers in December, with Isabelle Palmer
Keeping poinsettias for next year
Poinsettias don’t have to be as disposable as Christmas cracker toys. With a bit of dedication, you can keep them growing for next year, and you’ll have a much bigger plant than this year (as well as a slightly smug glow of satisfaction when someone comments on it). Get practising your: ‘what that? Oh it’s just from last year…’ nonchalance.
- Keep growing your poinsettia as normal until April, then prune back each stem to 10cm from the base and keep it in a cool, shady place
- In early May, water the plant and repot it into a slightly bigger pot, using good quality soil-based compost, and keep on a north windowsill
- As it starts to produce new growth, remove some of the new shoots to leave just five stems on the plant
- In summer, feed with a house plant food every two weeks
- From November, place your poinsettia in a dark room for 12 hours each day to stimulate flowering, keeping it away from artificial light
An unlikely euphorbia?
A lot of euphorbias are very useful hardy perennial garden plants with fresh winter foliage and showy bracts in spring but the poinsettia is also a type of euphorbia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) too despite its more delicate nature as a Christmas house plant. Pulcherrima means ‘most beautiful’ or ‘very beautiful’.
Poinsettias originate from Mexico where they are known as flor de nochebuena (Christmas eve flower). They grow at woodland edges and flower in winter, making a much bigger plant than the relatively short and stocky varieties sold here at Christmas, reaching up to three metres tall. Poinsettias sold here have sometimes been treated with growth depressants to stop them growing too tall.
Lovers of winter!
While the shortening hours of daylight creep up on gardeners (well, me anyway!) with a sense of foreboding, the increasing darkness is just what poinsettias need in order to thrive. They are short day plants, needing around 14 hours of darkness, with no artificial light from October to late November.
How to grow them
How do I say this politely? As a house plant, the poinsettia is a bit like that difficult Christmas house guest. They don’t want to sit too close to the fire, they don’t want to be near a draughty door, you never get a straight answer when you ask if they want something to eat or drink, and at times you wonder whether it would have been altogether better if they hadn’t entered the house in the first place. Still, at a time of year when peace on earth is being championed, a little bit of TLC will bear fruit, or at least a beautiful-looking house plant. The following will give you a poinsettia to be proud of. And for the guest? Well hand them a copy of A Christmas Carol and hope they make it to the end.
- Make sure the minimum temperature in the room is no lower than 13°C and keep them away from cold draughts and radiators
- Let the compost almost dry out in between waterings and just keep it moist rather than wet
- Mist regularly to boost humidity
- Place it on a stand or table away from direct sunlight in a room that has a steady temperature around 15-21°C
We’re all becoming more aware of the issues around harvesting peat from peatlands and the damaging effect it can have on the planet. Many of us are now looking for alternatives for growing plants. Peat has long been a growing medium used for poinsettias but change is coming and to source a peat-free poinsettia this Christmas there are several suppliers you can visit. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer are all offering peat-free poinsettias or head online to thehortihouse.co.uk.
You may have seen some different-looking poinsettias in garden centres this autumn, sold as ‘princettias’. These are essentially the same plants but in different colours (helpful if you feel that ‘red was so last year darling’). They are a bit more subdued, with forms in white, mid pink and blush pink. They are quite an investment compared to the usual red, so best to put them in a place where you know that poinsettias have thrived in previous years.
So how did our efforts to keep these mollycoddled houseplants alive come to be as synonymous with Christmas celebrations as stuffing turkeys and putting the Christmas pudding in the microwave for too long? Well it probably started hundreds of years ago with the legend of a Mexican girl called Pepita who picked a small bouquet of wildlowers from the roadside to give to the baby Jesus at a Christmas Eve church service, which burst into bright red flowers as she placed them by the nativity scene. From then on, the bright red flowers of poinsettias became known as ‘flowers of the holy night’ in memory of Pepita’s miracle.
In the 1600s, poinsettia flowers were also used by priests in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession in Taxco del Alarcon, a southern-western region of Mexico where poinsettias grow wild. The colourful bracts were associated with the Star of Bethlehem, which the magi used to guide them to the birthplace of the baby Jesus. The industry of poinsettias being sold as Christmas pot plants was kickstarted by Paul Ecke Sr. who began selling poinsettias in pots rather than as a cut flower, in Hollywood, Calfornia in the 1920s. The Paul Ecke Ranch is the largest breeder of poinsettias in the world.
Or grow a Christmas rival!
OK, you’re not sold on the idea of poinsettias but want to grow something else that looks colourful indoors at Christmas. Maybe the Christmas cactus (the clue’s in the name) will do the trick? You should find some nice ones ‘off the shelf’ in full flower now and they are easier to keep going year after year than poinsettias. Grow them in a warm, bright spot in winter, misting regularly. Then keep it somewhere cool (around 13°C) after flowering and water sparingly, for two months. Next, put it back to its warm, bright place, before putting it back into the cool place in mid-September until flower buds appear. Then move it to its final place to show off (sorry, I mean show ‘it’ off) during the festive period. Mist regularly when in flower.
Did you know?
- Poinsettias are the national emblem of Madagascar
- Aztecs used to use poinsettia leaves to make a reddish/purple coloured dye for clothes and the sap for treating fevers
- The stems ooze a milky, toxic sap when cut, so wear gloves when pruning poinsettias and keep them out of reach of children