Published on 11/11/03

Pick perfect poinsettia for festive holiday decor

By Bodie V. Pennisi
University of Georgia

Along with evergreens, poinsettias embody the holiday spirit and help create festive displays. The challenge is deciding how many and what color, leaf shape, plant size and form to buy.

You can choose among plants with traditional red, strong white, creamy white, light pink, solid pink, bright orange-red, deep purple-red and various marbled or speckled bracts. Plants range from 4-inch pots to 18-inch hanging baskets, living wreaths, topiaries and 3-gallon floor planters.

You can use poinsettia stems as cut flowers in arrangements, too. If you supply enough water, as when using florist foam, some new poinsettia cultivars can last up to two weeks as cut flowers.

Buying the best is easy

  • Look for Georgia-grown plants. This year the crop promises to be phenomenal. Locally grown plants may cost more, but they keep better. They're usually sold to florist shops and garden centers.
  • Select plants with fully colored and expanded bracts. (Bracts are the colored leaves. The actual flowers are the yellow centers.) Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges, a sign that it was shipped before it was mature enough.
  • Choose poinsettias with dense, rich green leaves all along the stem. They should be well branched and proportioned and about two and one-half times the height of the pot.
  • Examine leaves for "hitchhikers." Silverleaf whiteflies get on the underside of the leaves and suck the juices. This is the giveaway: whiteflies excrete "honeydew" onto the leaves below. Don't buy plants with sticky leaves and dots on the leaf undersides. The dots are whitefly nymphs.
  • Look closely at the roots. White and light tan roots that have grown to the sides of the pot are signs of a healthy plant. Brown roots or few roots may indicate disease.
  • Don't buy plants with weak stems, few bracts or any signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Often in stores poinsettias are crowded. Sometimes they're displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves. They need their space. The longer they stay sleeved, the faster their quality deteriorates.
  • When you take your poinsettia home, protect it from chilling winds and temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Place it in a sleeve or large shopping bag.
  • Once you get home, place it where it looks best. It will last about three weeks in fairly dark places. Don't put it near a cold draft or excessive heat or near an appliance, fireplace or ventilating duct.
  • Water a poinsettia only when the soil feels dry to the touch. But don't allow it to wilt, as it may cause leaves to drop. Overwatering is a common cause of plant loss. Don't leave the plant in standing water. This, too, may cause leaf drop. Always remove a plant from any decorative container before watering it and allow the water to drain completely.
  • Don't fertilize it during the blooming season. This will cause the plant to lose some of its quality.
  • After the holiday season is over, move the poinsettia to a bright spot in either a south-, east- or west-facing window. Eventually, the bracts will start to fall off. By early April, cut the plant back, leaving four to six nodes or segments on the stem. At this point, it can be grown outdoors in full sun. Fertilize it weekly with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer at the same rate you give houseplants.
  • Trim your poinsettia in June and plant it in a 1-gallon pot or large indoor planter. Trim back new growth again around July 1 and again by mid-August. Keep fertilizing through spring and summer, applying nutrition once every two to three weeks as fall nears. With enough water and nutrition, poinsettias can grow as high as 5 feet.
  • Poinsettias are nonpoisonous and safe for display around children and pets.
(Bodie Pennisi is an Extension Service horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Bodie Pennisi is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.