How to Plant, Grow and Care For Poinsettia Plants
Are you thinking of adding a poinsettia to your holiday decor this season? This festive tropical plant has become the quintessential holiday floral. With many new options and colors on the market, there is sure to be a poinsettia that's perfect for your home! In this article, gardening expert Danielle Sherwood takes you through all you need to know about poinsettias and their care.
Poinsettias are a beloved international symbol of the holiday season. This member of the Euphorbia family brightens homes with stunning displays of traditional red, white, or pink, and is now offered in new shades of gold and green.
Also called the Christmas Star, Flower of the Holy Night, and its original Aztec name Cuetlaxochitl, poinsettias dazzle with their colorful bracts for 4-6 weeks. With good care, they can be kept as houseplants or even grown outdoors year round!
Poinsettias have the reputation of being a bit tricky to care for, but with a few key maintenance tips, your poinsettias will be happy and healthy for the holiday season and beyond! Follow along for useful information about poinsettias and how to select and care for them.
Poinsettia Plant Overview
Plant Type Houseplant, perennial shrub
Species Euphorbia ‘Pulcherrima’
Native Area Mexico and Central America
Exposure Bright indirect light
Watering Requirements Low
Pests & Diseases White flies, spider mites, fungus gnats
Soil Type Loose
An iconic Christmas flower, the poinsettia comes in over 100 varieties! Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America, where they were cultivated by the Aztecs for ceremonial, decorative and medicinal use.
In their native habitat, poinsettias grow in deciduous tropical forests with an annual dry period. They are large perennial shrubs that grow up to 13 feet tall!
The striking colorful blooms many consider essential holiday decor are actually modified leaves, called bracts. The real poinsettia flowers, called cyathia, are small, yellow, and located at the center of the bracts.
The brilliant change in bract color poinsettias are famous for is triggered by short days and extended darkness occurring between November and January.
Most people treat these star-shaped stunners as annual decor, but with the right care and conditions, you can grow them year-round and experience their rebloom every season!
Purchasing a healthy plant is key to long-lasting seasonal color. Here are a few key things to look for when selecting a poinsettia for your home:
Selecting The Right Plant:
- Select a plant that is displayed in a warm area, away from cold drafts.
- Poinsettias displayed near drafty doorways are likely already struggling.
- Choose a poinsettia that has cyathia (yellow center flowers) in the bud stage.
- This way, your poinsettia will last as long as possible.
- Healthy poinsettias should have thick green leaves.
- Avoid plants with wilting, yellow, or brown leaves.
- Check the soil. Soil shouldn’t be soaking wet or totally dry.
- Give your poinsettia a root check by tipping it over and sliding it from the pot.
- Roots should be plentiful and white.
- Brown, shriveled, or dry roots mean a dying plant.
- Check for possible pests by inspecting the tops and undersides of leaves.
- If there are white dots on the leaves it could have white flies.
- Munched edges or holes also indicate a buggy plant.
- Once you’ve chosen your plant, protect it if temperatures are below 50℉.
- Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to cold.
The best selling poinsettias today are a festive, traditional red, but did you know there are over 100 varieties, with unique bract shapes and colors to choose from? Market poinsettias vary in size from dwarf shrubs to 3 ft. tall miniature trees.
They come in ruffled, curved, and pointed bract styles. You can also choose solid, speckled, or variegated leaves. Here are some beautiful options you might encounter:
Vivid red bracts and dark green star-shaped foliage characterize the traditional holiday poinsettia. This classic color is an internationally recognized symbol of holiday cheer. ‘Prestige Red’ is a popular variety in this traditional group, its strong stems and dense blooms setting the industry standard for red poinsettias.
If you prefer a more adventurous bract shape, try the adorable ‘Christmas Mouse’, with small curved red leaves that look like little mouse ears. ‘Winter Rose’ has curled bracts that resemble red rose blooms.
Snowy white poinsettias are the second most popular color choice for winter container decor. You can find white poinsettias in bright clear white, darker cream, and plentiful bract shapes.
‘Alaska’ is a standout in this category, with long-lasting pure white leaves. Check out ‘Christmas Glory White’ for rich cream bracts and a more compact size.
Pink varieties come in delicate pastel to deep rose. Especially popular in modern decor, pink poinsettias can be a refreshing change from the more traditional red and white.
‘Superba Pink’ is a beautiful midseason option, with lovely pointed mid-pink bracts. For a more pastel palette, try ‘Visions of Grandeur’. This gorgeous variety has pale rose-pink leaves and creamy white veins.
Novelty poinsettias attract the eye and come in unusual solid colors, like the bright yellow ‘Golden Glo’, lime colored ‘Green Envy’, or radiant golden ‘Autumn Leaves’.
Leaves are available in unique patterns, like the speckled ‘Primero Red Glitter’ or ‘Early Elegance Marble’.
Poinsettias can provide celebratory color for 6-8 weeks when properly maintained. Read on for tips to keep your poinsettia in good shape throughout the season!
Once you’ve brought your poinsettia home, remove the pot from its decorative nursery sleeve so it can breathe. Your poinsettia can last the season in its original container, but if you choose to repot it, pick a vessel similar in size to the one it came in.
Poinsettias like slightly alkaline, well-drained soil, so you may want to add some perlite in addition to all-purpose soil if moving to a new pot.
Poinsettias prefer bright, indirect light. These natives of dappled shady tropical forests can be damaged by too much or too little sun.
Southwest or East facing windows are perfect locations for optimal sunlight. In insufficient light, the leaves of a poinsettia will turn yellow and fall from the plant. With intense light, they may grow leggy and colorful bracts will bleach out. Don’t let your poinsettia leaves come into contact with cold window panes or they can be damaged.
Aim for at least 6 hours of bright indirect light per day. If you have very low light conditions, bright artificial grow lights work just as well.
Poinsettias are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations and dislike hot, dry environments as well as cold drafty conditions. They prefer a steady temperature between 65-75 degrees, in a location protected from frequently opening doors and windows.
These holiday plants enjoy high humidity (of at least 55%) to more closely resemble their natural habitat. If your home has dry, hot air, consider using a humidifier or mister to extend the life of your poinsettia.
Aim to provide the most stable temperature conditions possible by sheltering your poinsettia from heat-generating appliances as well as cold air.
Poinsettias don’t need a lot of water. Overwatering leads to root rot and yellow leaves that eventually drop off the plant. Soil that’s too dry will cause the plant to wilt and lose leaves. Water only when the top couple of inches of soil dry out completely.
You can check soil dryness with your finger, or lift up the whole pot. If it feels significantly lighter, it’s time to water!
On average, your poinsettia will need watering once a week. However, household temperature and humidity may lead to more or less moisture retention, so continue to do soil checks rather than stick to a schedule.
When watering, put your poinsettia in the kitchen sink, and let the water thoroughly saturate the soil until it drains out the bottom of the pot. Let it sit until no water drips from the bottom.
Poinsettias don’t need fertilizer while they’re in bloom (while bracts are showing their color). Proper watering, light, and humidity is all they need to stay healthy.
Fertilizer comes into play if you decide to keep your poinsettia as a year round plant. Read on for tips about taking care of your poinsettia so it displays beautiful color again next year!
The majority of consumers treat poinsettias as annuals, discarding them after the holiday season. But with the right care, you can keep your poinsettia as a lovely green houseplant (or even plant it outdoors in the right climate) and experience its dramatic color change again next season!
The colorful bracts of your poinsettia will begin to fade and fall off during this time. This is normal and part of its yearly growth cycle.
Keep your poinsettia in a spot with at least 6 hours of bright indirect light. Reduce watering to about ½ cup every 2 weeks.
The post-holiday period is resting time for your poinsettia, so there’s no need to fertilize yet.
Now’s the time to cut back your poinsettia to encourage new growth. Cut it down to about 5 inches (or by half, depending on the size of your plant). When cutting, use clean bypass pruners. Working stem by stem, cut each one just above a leaf node.
Keep your plant in a bright spot with plenty of light. When the plant begins to push some new green growth, it’s time to fertilize!
Apply a balanced fertilizer once a month. The letters on fertilizer packaging, (NPK), represent the 3 principal macronutrients necessary for healthy plants – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. As fertilizer needs vary depending on soil pH, it’s safest to select a fertilizer with a balanced ratio of these nutrients.
Look for an all-purpose fertilizer with equal NPK ratios (ie. 10-10-10). Both liquid and granular fertilizers work well.
Continue to water thoroughly when soil is dry, letting it drain out. Never let your poinsettia sit in water.
Your poinsettia is probably ready for repotting. Choose a pot one size (about 2 inches) larger than the one it’s currently growing in. This prevents transplant shock and root rot when the plant is sitting in too much wet soil.
Make sure your pot has adequate drainage. If you want to use a decorative pot with no drain holes, use a slightly smaller plastic pot that you can place inside it. Take it out of the decorative pot when you water, allowing water to fully drain before returning it.
When repotting to a larger container, you will need to add some new soil. Ideal soil for poinsettias is slightly acidic, with a pH of 5.8-6.2. Look for a good potting mix that is somewhat loose and allows for good drainage. Most houseplant mixes that contain some perlite will do the job well.
Keep watering when the top few inches of soil are dry and fertilize once a month.
At this time, you should be seeing healthy new growth! To encourage a full, bushy plant, pinch back new stems about an inch. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the irritating sap when pruning.
Pinching back creates side branching, preventing the poinsettia from looking leggy and unattractive. Make sure to leave at least 4 leaves per stem for photosynthesis.
You can keep your poinsettia indoors in a bright, sunny location, or move it outside! If you’d like to bring your poinsettia outdoors, make sure that your temperatures do not drop below 55℉. Anything below that will be too cold and can kill your plant.
To move your poinsettia outdoors, you have 2 options. You can leave it in its pot and grow it as a patio plant. Make sure to place it where it will receive 6 hours of sunlight, but be protected from scorching afternoon sun. Bright dappled shade is great.
You can also grow your poinsettia directly in the ground! This is a great option for gardeners in zones 9-11 (check your hardiness zone on the USDA hardiness map), where poinsettias can survive the year outdoors. In colder zones, plan to bring the plant back indoors once temperatures drop below 55℉ at night.
To plant your poinsettia in the garden, choose a spot with well-drained soil, and 6-8 hours of sunlight. Dig a hole that’s about 12 inches wider and 6 inches deeper than the plant’s root ball. Place your poinsettia inside, backfill with soil, and water it in well.
Continue to fertilize regularly. If you’d like to water and fertilize on the same schedule, simply use the fertilizer at half strength every time you water. If you’re unsure when to water, do the “knuckle test”, pushing your finger knuckle deep into the soil. Soil that is dry all the way through means it’s time to water!
Keep up your water and fertilization regimen. To control your plant’s size, pinch back to just above a leaf node as needed. If you’re growing outdoors, you may be surprised by how large your poinsettia grows over time!
Depending on your climate, temperatures will likely start to drop during this time, and you will need to bring it back inside. In zones 9-11, you can leave your poinsettia outdoors, but you will need to take a few extra steps to ensure rebloom, or as they say in the industry, “force” the bracts to change color.
Poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning their seasonal color change is initiated by the onset of shorter days and long, dark nights. This period lasts 6-8 weeks.
They need 12-15 hours of complete darkness per day in fall for bracts to produce their signature color. Any light at all during this period, from underneath a doorway, or a streetlamp, can disrupt the process. In most climates (with temps below 55℉ at any point), you will need to provide this dark period inside.
In or out, reduce fertilizer use by half during this time. Continue to water when soil is dry.
During the day, leave your plant near a window with indirect sunlight. Every evening from 5 pm to 8 am, ensure complete darkness by putting your poinsettia in a dark closet, blocking any light that comes under the door.
Alternatively, you can cover your poinsettia by placing a large cardboard box on top of it. Don’t forget to remove this covering/bring your plant out of the closet in the morning!
Keep temperatures as stable as possible, between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
If your plant is growing outside in zones 9-11, check nighttime light conditions to ensure no light reaches the plant for a minimum of 12 hours. When too much light is present, use a covering on your plant to block it completely.
If your plant is hit by an unexpected frost it may experience die-back and fail to color up this season. Cut it back until you reach live wood in spring so it will grow for you next year.
Now for the exciting part! By mid-November, the top bracts of your poinsettia may start to color up. In some varieties, this happens a bit later, so don’t worry if you still have green leaves. By December, you should see color.
You no longer need to provide complete darkness for your poinsettia. Pick its winter spot, providing bright indirect light, and leave it there for the season. Stop fertilization completely, as you want the plant to focus on developing color rather than new growth.
Water only when soil is dry, and enjoy your beautiful poinsettia!
Poinsettias can be difficult to propagate, so this section is for true enthusiasts! There are two methods for propagation, via seed or stem cuttings. If you want to grow more plants to brighten your home, here are some guidelines for success:
Growing From Seed
Growing from seed is easier, but your seedling may not be the same as the parent plant. Try this method if you’re open to growing any variety!
To grow from seed, harvest seed pods once they’ve begun to turn brown (the pods are developed after the cyathia in the center of the bracts have finished flowering).
Dry them out for a few days in a paper bag. As they dry, their small dark seeds will pop out of the pods. If not, shake them a bit so they fall to the bottom of the bag.
Once fully dry, the seeds can be planted! Place one seed per small container (1-2 inches) just under the soil. Widely available seed starting mix works great.
Keep your pots in a warm location with indirect sunlight. Test the soil frequently and keep it evenly moist. In 1-2 weeks, you’ll see sprouts! As they grow into bigger plants, repot them and provide fertilizer to encourage healthy growth, and follow the adult plant care instructions.
Growing From Cuttings
Using cuttings from healthy adult plants is the most popular method of poinsettia propagation. This way, you know your baby poinsettia will produce the same color as the parent plant! This method takes a few extra steps, but success is more likely.
The best time for propagating poinsettias is when they’ve recently pushed new green growth in June or July.
Step 1: Choose Your Plant
First, choose a healthy plant with fresh stems and foliage. Put on some gloves to protect your skin from the irritating white sap. Remember not to rub your eyes!
Using sterilized bypass pruners, select a new green stem and cut it down to remove a section of 3-4 inches, just above a leaf node.
Step 2: Prepare Your Seed Tray
Prepare a small container or seed-starting tray by filling it ¾ full with a mix of vermiculite and perlite, or a coconut coir-based potting medium. The cuttings will draw their moisture from their leaves for a while, so you are more concerned about providing good drainage and preventing rot than nutrient-rich, moist soil.
Use a pencil to poke one small hole per container, at least a few inches deep, where you plan to place each cutting. This prevents the root hormone rubbing off when you slide your cuttings into the growing medium.
Remove the bottom leaves of your cuttings, leaving 2-3 leaves at the top. Roots will develop from the nodes where you’ve removed the leaves.
Step 3: Use Rooting Hormone
Dip the end of each cutting into rooting hormone powder or gel. This will increase your cutting’s chances of growing new roots! Make sure to cover the exposed bottom nodes and stem.
Step 4: Planting
Then, insert your cutting into your pre-poked holes, submerging it deep enough to cover the leaf nodes. Do not water your cuttings! Instead, mist them lightly with water from a spray bottle. If you have hard water, consider using filtered, as poinsettia seedlings are very sensitive.
Provide a warm, humid greenhouse effect to encourage growth by covering your cuttings with clear plastic bags or plastic soda bottles with the bottoms cut off. Leave room above the cutting and the covering for air circulation. Remove the covering to mist them with water daily.
Step 5: Maintenance
Place the cuttings in indirect light. In 10-14 days, they should start to develop roots! Once they have produced new leaves and strong roots (in about one month), they are ready to be transplanted to a larger container with a well draining indoor plant mix.
Once moved, you water them whenever the soil is dry, as you would for a mature plant. Remember to pinch back new stems a bit as they grow to encourage a full, bushy plant!
Follow the previous care steps for mature plants, giving them 12-15 hours of darkness in September, and you can enjoy your own colorful baby poinsettias!
Poinsettias are generally low maintenance (aside from their tricky dark period). However, they do experience some common problems. Look out for the following issues and fix them as soon as possible to maintain a healthy plant.
Be on the alert for fungus gnats, white flies and spider mites. If you see insects on your plant, use yellow sticky traps to attract and capture them. Don’t let soil get overly moist, and remove any fallen or disfigured foliage.
Leaf yellowing (when not the desired bract color) is usually caused by under or overwatering. Make sure your pot has good drainage, and water only when the top layer of soil is dry. Yellow leaves in the off-season can mean lack of essential nutrients. Apply a balanced fertilizer regularly.
Poinsettias are prone to Bract-edge Burn, causing brown leaf edges. Don’t fertilize when your bracts are in color. Too much humidity (above 90%) can also cause brown leaves. Avoid brown patches due to sunscorch by keeping your poinsettia out of harsh direct light.
Drooping & Wilted Foliage
Poinsettias drop their leaves when they experience fluctuations in temperature. Always protect your poinsettia from extreme hot or cold by placing it in a sheltered spot. Keep indoor temperatures as stable as possible.
Over or underwatering is the likely culprit, but humidity and temperature also play a role. Make sure your plant is not too close to a heat source or cold drafts., and use a humidifier if needed.
Check your plant for healthy white roots. If they are brown or shriveled, root rot may have occurred. This can cause the death of the plant, and you’ll most likely need to replace it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are they dangerous for pets?
Poinsettias are safe to have around your pets! Rumors of toxicity are exaggerated. If exposed to the sap from broken or cut stems, your pet might experience minor skin irritation (same for humans). If your pet eats your poinsettia, he or she might experience minor stomach upset and diarrhea. In order for consumption to be fatal, a human or pet would need to consume upwards of 500 leaves!
Why are they associated with Christmas?
Poinsettias develop their beautiful colors right around the holiday, making them a natural choice for festive celebrations and decor. Some associations have been made between their pointed leaf shape and the Star of Bethlehem.
Are poinsettias fragrant?
To most people, poinsettias are odorless. Some people detect a faint pine-like smell. If your poinsettia smells bad or sour, check for fungus or disease that might be causing the unpleasant scent.
Can poinsettias grow outdoors?
Yes! In their native tropical habitats, poinsettias thrive outside year round, growing into tall, robust trees! In colder climates, you can grow your poinsettia outside, as long as temperatures stay consistently above 55 degrees. When grown in hardiness zones 9-11, poinsettias can be planted in the garden and grow outdoors all year.
Poinsettias are gorgeous tropical plants that beautify our homes during the holiday season with their colorful leaf bract display. Available in stunning reds, snowy whites, delicate pinks, and fun novelty shades, poinsettias offer a cheerful floral display when little else is blooming.
Whether you prefer to enjoy them as annuals or keep them as perennial plants to bloom year after year, use these growing tips to ensure happy, healthy, beautiful plants!