Unlike Christmas presents, gingerbread cookies, and wrapped gifts, poinsettias, with their red and green leaves that blend seem perfectly suited to the holidays, can last for long afterwards. Native to Mexico, Poinsettias were used by the Aztecs to make a colorful red dye. They were transported to the United States by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. His interest in botany took him on long walks through the countryside looking for new plant species where he became enamored with the large red flowers of the poinsettia, and he brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. It wasn’t until the early 1900s though, when the Ecke family started farming the poinsettia in California and marketing it as the Christmas flower that poinsettias became associated with the holiday. Now, poinsettias are the best-selling potted flower in the US, over sixty million plants sold each season.
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To pick a lasting, healthy plant, choose one with dark green foliage and bracts (the tiny yellow parts on top of the flower) that are completely colored with no green around the edges. Stay away from the plants that are dropping leaves, or wilting. To determine whether the poinsettia will look fresh through the New Year, the flowers should be green or red-tipped and have a little yellow pollen on the leaves. Once you’ve brought the plant home, keep it away from the radiator, but also away from a drafty window. Water when the soil feels dry, but make sure to poke holes in the foil wrapping most of them come wrapped in.
While there’s no guarantee that your poinsettia will bloom next year (they can be a little persnickety), you can certainly try, and enjoy the foliage in the meantime. Around the first of the year, fertilize your poinsettia with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Keep the plant in a sunny location that provides about six hours of indirect sunlight. As the year draws on, keep fertilizing once a month and repot if necessary. Come summer, put the plant outside to enjoy the fresh air. Finally, mid-September, give your poinsettia dark nights of about 8 hours in length. Any light during the night will prevent the plant from flowering—the decreased day length is what stimulates the plant to flower. During the day, put it back in the sun. Really want to test your green thumb? You could always try a poinsettia in a can, bought at local dollar stores.
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