Poinsettias are native to Central America and southern Mexico and have been an important plant in those cultures for centuries. The Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl and had a number of uses for them. The colorful bracts (they aren't flowers, but more on this later) were used to make dyes for cloth and basketry. They also used the pigment for cosmetics or face paints. The sap was part of the herbal pharmacy and they used it as a treatment to bring down fevers. They naturally bloom in this area during the winter months and were often used decoratively, just as we do today.
The peoples where the plant grows naturally have a lovely legend concerning how the pretty leaves were created. It seems that a 16th Century young brother and sister were walking to church on Christmas Eve for the service and custom had it that they should bring a gift for the Christ Child. Having nothing themselves, the sister, (sometimes called Maria or Pepita) gathered some roadside weeds into a small bouquet and carried them to the church, sad because her offering was so small and ugly. The angels looked into her heart and saw she gave it with love, so changed the weeds into the bright red flowers we know as poinsettias. Even today, poinsettias are known as Flor de Noche Buena which loosely translates to Christmas Eve Flower.
The American Christmas poinsettia tradition can be attributed to one man, Albert Ecke. He was a German immigrant to California in 1900 and started his business by selling poinsettias at a roadside stand during the holidays. His son, Paul, developed a grafting process that made for bushy plants with more flowers. His son, Paul Eke Jr. was a marketing whiz and sent plants to television stations so that people would see them on the air and want them too. They held the monopoly on the grafting process until the 1980's when others figured out their secret and the poinsettia business became a mass marketing powerhouse. You can now purchase a lovely poinsettia from your local supermarket, gas station or big box store, when before, florists had the business.
Poinsettias come in more colors than the traditional red now as well. There are pink, white, bi-colors, salmons and yellows. Some enterprising vendors even spray the white ones with a dye or paint, so if you want a blue, purple or orange poinsettia, that can be found as well. Just remember that those plants you see shivering by the automatic doors in your local supermarket are probably stressed from the cold and will not last as long as the plants that are in warmer conditions further inside the store. If you are only wanting one for decoration at a party, then the impulse buy will be fine, but if you are buying a poinsettia for a season-long enhancement to your home, choose carefully. Make sure that the soil isn't waterlogged. Most plants come with their pots wrapped in decorative foil. If they aren't watered carefully, the roots can rot from too much moisture. If you like the foil, poke a few holes in it so water can drain. Make sure the soil isn't waterlogged, or too dry. If there are a number of wilted leaves that haven't bounced back with the rest of the plant, chances are the soil has been dry too long and affected the poinsettia. Soil should be barely damp, or dry on top and damp when you stick your finger in the medium. Choose plants from the warmest area of the display and wrap your choice carefully before taking it outside in the cold. Taking these precautions will give you the strongest and healthiest plant for the duration of the holidays.
Once you bring your poinsettia into your home, you should give it the best conditions for surviving the season. Make sure that you give it plenty of bright light. An eastern facing window is ideal, as long as the leaves do not touch the glass. The cold glass can damage the pretty leaves. If you host several parties and gatherings during the season, move the plant to the centerpiece position the day of the celebration, leaving it in the window the rest of the time. Poinsettias like temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you are comfortable, it will be too. Water only when the soil is dry. Too much water will stress the plant, just as too little. Some people like to give their plant small amounts of water every couple of days, others like to water thoroughly once a week, being careful to pour out any water that drains from the pot. Don't let the roots sit in water.
Many people wonder if they can keep their poinsettia alive until the next year and have it bloom. Yes, it is possible, but it does take quite a bit of effort. The plant will live with no problem, but getting the color to emerge is another story. The colorful 'flowers' on top of your poinsettia are not flowers at all, but leaves, The real flowers are the tiny yellow centers. The leaves that turn color, attract pollinators to the insignificant flowers. These leaves are called bracts and a number of plants have showy bracts. Dogwood trees are another. The white or pink dogwood bracts are not the actual flower, the center area is where the flower resides. To get your poinsettia's bracts to turn color a number of specific steps have to be followed. Commercial operations have vast greenhouses set up just for poinsettias and the specific needs are built right in to the buildings. Home gardeners have to be more creative.
To bring your poinsettia to bloom the next year, Treat it like any other houseplant. The colored bracts will eventually fall off and then you can trim the stems back right under where the flowers and bracts were. Wait until the outside temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night before moving them outside to a bright, but not sunny area. Continue to water when dry and feed with a general fertilizer every 2 weeks and prune again in July or August. This time cut them back by about one half their size. This will encourage the plant to branch. You can also repot in a slightly larger pot then.
Now comes the tricky part. From September 21st (the Equinox) until the end of October the plants need to have about 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness. This has to be complete darkness. Even the light from under a doorway if you have it in a closet will keep the plant from coloring up. Some people put a cardboard box over their plants. This has to be light tight as well. The smallest amount of light will cause failure and set back the time table for the color to show. After this time, you can quit the dark treatment and leave the poinsettia in its accustomed spot all the time, water when needed and omit the fertilizer. The bracts should color by Christmas. Poinsettias are so cheap, I tend to just compost mine when they are no longer attractive and purchase new ones the next year.
Many people won't have a poinsettia because they've read that it is toxic to cats, dogs and children. All plants in the Euphorbia family are mildly toxic, but not deadly. The most that could happen is some insignificant drooling in pets, or mild contact dermatitis in the case of a child. Your pets or your children aren't going to make a meal out of something that tastes bad, so there is not much chance of any real harm, but if you are concerned, place them on a mantle or out of reach.
Poinsettias are a great way to add some seasonal color to your holiday decorations and chances are they are offered just about everywhere you shop. With a little thought and information, you can choose a plant that will stay attractive and healthy long into the season, so keep these things in mind when selecting a plant.