How to grow and care for poinsettias

Most of us are familiar with the brilliant red poinsettia, always popular at Christmas. The red comes from the showy bracts, which are the outer leaves surrounding the flowers.

What you need to know about poinsettia

Name: poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

Height: up to 3m in the ground, but often pot-grown

Foliage: mid-green, oval, soft, sometimes tinged red.

Climate: sub-tropical to tropical; indoor plant in cool climates.

Soil: well-drained, fertile loam or quality potting mix.

Position: sunny open spot; light shade from hot midday/afternoon sun will reduce leaf scorch.

Flowering: “flowers” made up of coloured bracts surrounding a cluster of insignificant flowers; colours from white through pink to crimson.

Feeding: use a long-term controlled-release fertiliser; supplement with liquid food from spring to autumn

Watering: keep moist, but not wet.


Appearance and characteristics of poinsettias

Poinsettia comes from Mexico and enjoys a warm temperate to sub-tropical climate. It is a succulent, although its leaves are not typically fleshy. They are mid-green and occasionally tinged with red. The plant’s stems may also sometimes be red.

Poinsettia exudes a milky sap when its stems are cut or damaged. Avoid skin contact, as the sap can cause irritation in some people.

In the garden, plants may grow to 4m tall and will need regular pruning to keep them within bounds. There are also many dwarf varieties available that grow to only 1–2m.

The star feature of poinsettias is the “flower” produced at the ends of branches. In pots and in the garden, these can completely smother the leaves during the flowering period.

Poinsettia usually flowers in winter. To achieve colour for Christmas in the southern hemisphere, plants are grown in light- and temperature-controlled glasshouses to trick them into thinking it’s winter, not summer.

Many varieties of poinsettia are available, with variegated foliage and bracts ranging from creamy white to blush pink. Most are more compact, and bushier than the original red species.

Growing conditions

Poinsettia can be grown in a pot or in the garden in a warm area. It prefers a full sun to half shade position—it will not flower or colour up well in dense shade. Shelter from strong winds is essential, as the branches are quite brittle. Well-drained soil enriched with plenty of compost and weathered animal manure will encourage healthy, vigorous growth.

In cooler climates, poinsettia will do better in a pot that can be moved to a sheltered position, warmed by the sun and protected from frosts and cold winds.

Always use a premium-quality potting mix that drains well, and a pot size that comfortably holds the root ball of the plant. Never put a small plant into a large pot.

How to grow poinsettia from cuttings

Poinsettia can be grown from stem cuttings taken in spring or summer:

  1. Wash off the milky sap in fresh water.

  2. Set the poinsettia cuttings into a tray or pot of propagating mix or coarse washed sand.

  3. When roots have formed, pot plants up individually.

Caring for poinsettias

Poinsettia plant care is relatively easy. Although it is a succulent, poinsettia does like a reasonable amount of moisture. It will need watering at least once a week over summer (more often in pots, or when it’s very hot and dry). Make sure to thoroughly soak it each time. Reduce frequency as the weather cools, but don’t let it dry out completely.

To encourage good colour in the flower heads, apply a water-soluble or liquid fertiliser high in potash (potassium or “K” in the “NPK” ratio printed on the label) every 3–4 weeks throughout the year.

A controlled-release fertiliser that feeds for up to six months is also recommended—choose one for flowering plants or garden beds.

When growing poinsettia in a pot, always use a premium-quality potting mix. Cover the drain holes in the pot with flywire mesh to prevent the mix washing out.

Established plants in the garden and pots should be pruned back when they have finished flowering. You can be quite harsh—the plant will respond with lush new growth and prolific flowering.

After Christmas …

Poinsettia is a symbol of Christmas, and potted plants are often bought simply to add a touch of red to the decor during the festive season, after which they are discarded when the flowers fade.

Rather than toss the plant into the compost bin, cut it back reasonably severely, give it a handful of controlled-release fertiliser and move the pot to a spot where it will receive a minimum of six hours of indirect sunlight daily.

After the plant has grown new shoots, either re-pot into a bigger container or transplant into the garden. It should flower again during winter.

Poinsettia pests and diseases

Poinsettia may occasionally be attached by aphids or thrips. A natural insecticide like pyrethrum will control these.

In pots, fungus gnats (small black flies) in the potting mix may cause root damage. An organic insecticide applied to the soil may solve the problem, but if it doesn’t, re-pot the plant into fresh premium-quality potting mix from a newly purchased bag.

If you like this then try

Brugmansia: a woody shrub with masses of pendulous perfumed flowers; its common name is angel’s trumpet.

Palms: from massive date and coconut palms to potted kentias, palms are synonymous with the tropics.

Hibiscus: flamboyant tropical shrub with flowers from yellow to brick red; will grow in a protected spot in cool areas.

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