Ward Upham, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension, describes poinsettias as "the dependable diva of winter-blooming houseplants."
"They are divas," he adds, "because they are fairly specific about the care they require."
These woody shrubs are native to Taxco, Mexico, where they grow outdoors, as a bush, to a height of 10 feet. Poinsettias are now cultivated in all 50 states, and Americans spend more than $220 million on our 12- to 20-inch-tall houseplants.
A poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) consists of the plant stems, green leaves, colored bracts, and the actual flower is the yellow center of the bracts. Purchase the healthiest plant you can. With care, they will live easily through the winter and into May, so spending some additional money on size and quality is worth the cost.
¢ Select plants with stiff stems and no signs of wilting or drooping leaves or bracts. The more yellow pollen showing on the flowers, the longer it has been in bloom. Old plants are missing their actual flowers.
¢ Be wary of plants that are displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves, or crowded in the sales display. Poinsettias need space, and the longer they are confined, the more the quality will deteriorate.
¢ Even if the plant looks healthy, avoid those with waterlogged soil. Root rot already may have started.
¢ As you transport it, use a sleeve or large shopping bag to protect it from the winter cold and wind, and make this the last stop on the way home.
Ward's diva now will show its colors. Place the plant in indirect sunlight for at least six hours per day with a room temperature of 60 to 70 degrees. Close the blinds at night. Do not place it near any cold drafts, excessive heat, appliances, fireplaces, ventilation ducts or on top of the television. Water only when the soil feels dry to the touch and then make sure the water drains out the bottom and the plant is not sitting in any standing water. Generally, if you would be comfortable in that location, so is the plant. Do not repot or fertilize the poinsettia while in bloom.
The better varieties of the plant will hold the bloom until May. They have a good chance of survival and growth outside and through the summer, although only as a foliage plant. Set them out after all danger of frost is past and the night temperatures are above 55 degrees. As the bracts and leaves fade, trim these off above the new growth. Place them in a wind-protected, sunny area, shaded from the intense midday and afternoon sun. Fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer and keep them well-watered, but avoid soggy feet. Keep the tips cut off to make a bushier plant.
Bring the plant indoors Sept. 1, and starting Oct. 1, the diva will require 14 hours of consecutive, complete darkness each night for about 11 weeks and 10 hours of full sunshine each day for full color. Fertilize weekly and keep up the watering schedule. By Thanksgiving, you will have a reborn poinsettia or relish the fact that new greenhouse grown plants are on the market.