Diversity of Poinsettias
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated -  December 03, 2004

They are no longer just red or white. Pink, coral, purple, red with pink flecks, pink with red flecks, pink-red-white marble are just some of the color variations that have been developed. Some have yellow or white variegated foliage and others ruffled or incurved bracts. Poinsettias have diversified tremendously since commercial production began in southern California in the early 20th century.

Early breeding resulted in varieties that hold their “bloom” for a long time making the poinsettia a valuable winter holiday plant. Choose the plant carefully and provide the right care, and a poinsettia will provide color and cheer well beyond the holiday season. Please note that poinsettias are not poisonous if eaten, a conclusion based on many studies. Some individuals may be sensitive to contact with the latex sap, however.

A poinsettia “blossom” is actually composed of bracts, the large colorful “petals” that are actually modified leaves, and the true flowers that are held in cyathia, the small green structures that comprise the center of the poinsettia “blossom”. A close look at the cyathia may be one clue to choosing a poinsettia that is closer to the beginning of “bloom” than the end. If the true flowers bearing yellow pollen are prominently visible in most cyathia or if the cyathia have dropped, the “bloom” may be passing or past peak. Some varieties may hold their bracts for an extended time even after the true flowers have dropped, however.

Choose a healthy plant by looking for good foliage and bract color- no yellowing, discoloration or spots - and full foliage cover – little or no stem visible. Check for whitefly – a pest that can easily spread to other plants in the home. The small white adults will readily fly from plants when disturbed. The eggs and nymphs of the insect, very small whitish or tan oval bumps, will be found on the undersides of lower leaves.

Poinsettias do not like cold (below 50 F), not even a short exposure going from shop to home. The seller should provide some protection – a sleeve- for the plant, and it should not be transported or left in a cold automobile trunk. Cold can cause leaf and bract drop and bract discoloration so avoid cold temperatures, even drafts, once the plant is at home. Remove the plant from the sleeve or other protection sooner rather than later. Poinsettias enclosed too long develop epinasty, the drooping of leaves and bracts, which will usually disappear in a few days under good growing conditions. Don’t buy poinsettias that are stored or displayed in sleeves.

Poinsettias need regular watering (drying out will cause premature leaf loss) but the planting mix should dry to the touch before re-watering. Give them a bright location but no direct sun while they are in bloom. Ideal temperatures are70-75 F during the day and 60-65 F at night. The plants might benefit from fertilizer after a month or so, especially if the plan is to keep them beyond the holidays as houseplants.

For lots more information on poinsettias, visit the Poinsettia Pages of the University of Illinois Extension website at

Poinsettias make nice holiday gifts for just about anyone. For gardeners there are other plants, garden tools and equipment, garden décor. And, of course, there are the “gifts that keep giving” garden books but so many it can be tough to choose one. Here are a couple of suggestions. In my opinion, an excellent general garden reference, a perfect gift for the new gardener, is America’s Garden Book by James and Louise Bush-Brown (Charles Scribner’s and Sons). It covers almost every subject in enough accurate detail to be very helpful without being overwhelming. A relatively new plant r4eference that I’ve found very useful as a ling-time gardener is Armitage’s Manual of Annuals, Biennials, and Half-hardy Perennials by Allan M. Armitage (Timber Press). Though perennials have taken “center stage” with flower gardeners for many years, annuals should never be overlooked and the variety of plants available on the retail market, and in specialty seed catalogs continues to grow.

Here’s one more idea for a gift that will “keep giving”. Is there some one on the gift list who is not able to do all the work involved in creating a garden? Give them an IOU, a commitment to do a planting, large or small. I know that when my mother was no longer able to do much gardening beyond pulling an occasional weed or deadheading the potted pansies, a gift she truly enjoyed was having her garden prepared and planted every spring.