Carol Chernega is a master gardener who owns a garden maintenance business near Pittsburgh, Pa. She writes and lectures on pruning, English gardens, and deer resistant plants. She can be reached at


Poinsettias — How a Christmas Tradition was Born
by Carol Chernega - posted 11/21/16


Poinsettia ‘Silver Star’

It has long been a custom in Mexico to place flowers around church mangers on Christmas Eve. Folklore tells the tale of a poor young child who could not afford flowers. An angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds by the side of the road, and place them on the manger. When he did, the weeds turned into beautiful red flowers that the Mexicans called Flor de la Noche Buena, or the Flower of the Holy Night.

How did Flor de la Noche Buena become one of the most popular potted plants in the U.S.?

That story starts in the early 19th century, when Joel Poinset was named the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. During a trip in 1828 he discovered an unusual tree called Cuetlaxochitl. The Aztecs had distilled the red bracts of this plant to make dye, and used the milky sap as a treatment for fever.

Poinset loved the vibrant color of the plant and sent home cuttings to be given to friends and botanists. Gradually, it became available for sale under the name Euphorbia pulcherrima, Latin for “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”


Poinsettia ‘Plum Pudding'

Facts and Myths

The colored parts of the poinsettia are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers are in the center of the bracts and are usually yellow and white.

It’s a myth that poinsettias are poisonous. Studies have shown that even if a 50 pound child ate 500 bracts, it would not kill her. But the plant can cause stomach upset in pets and humans, so it’s best to avoid eating it. The milky sap can also cause skin irritation.


Buy the Best

Here’s what to look for when buying a poinsettia. First, the foliage should be dark green. Avoid foliage that has brown spots that indicate poinsettia scab. The colored bracts should not have green around the edges. Don’t purchase plants that are drooping or wilting, especially if the soil is wet. This can be a sign of root rot. Don’t buy plants with fallen or yellowed leaves, or that have yellow pollen starting to fall from the flowers. This is an indication that it’s past its prime. White spots the size of a dime indicate powdery mildew.

Before leaving the store, make sure the plant is completely covered. Even a few minutes at temperatures below 50 F can damage the leaves, shortening its life. Put it inside the car with you, not in the trunk.


Poinsettia ‘Strawberries and Cream’


Placement in Your Home

Once you’re home, place the plant near (but not touching) a sunny window, in a room that has temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. Poinsettias don’t like changes in temperature, so don’t place it near heat vents or fireplaces, or near outside doors that are constantly opened and closed.


Poinsettia ‘Twilight Monet’


Check the soil daily and water it when it starts to get dry. When watering, remove the foil that usually surrounds the pot and allow the water to drain away completely. Fertilizer isn’t necessary while the plant is blooming.



You can get your poinsettia to bloom again next Christmas by following these steps.

In early spring, cut the plant back to about 8 inches. Continue watering regularly, and fertilize with a balanced houseplant fertilizer twice a month.

Once all danger of frost has passed, you can place it outside in a shady spot. Avoid full sun. Continue to water and fertilize. By early summer, it should start to get bushy. Prune it back to keep it compact.

Once the nights start getting colder, take the poinsettia back inside. 

Now comes the crucial part. Starting in early October, the plant will need 14 continuous hours of darkness. Put it in a closet or cover it with a large box for 14 hours every night. The room should have an even temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees at night. During the day, bring it out into a sunny room for up to 10 hours. 

Continue to water and fertilize.


If you’re lucky, you should have Flor de la Noche Buena by December 12, National Poinsettia Day.


Poinsettia 'Carousel'


A version of this article originally appeared in a December 2013 State-by-State Gardening E-newsletter.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek.


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