Poinsettia Answers

3 common questions about Poinsettias

Are poinsettias poisonous?

How do I keep my poinsettia healthy?

How do you get poinsettias to re-bloom?

sandys-garden.jpg

By: Sandy Feather ©2011
Penn State Extension


Q. Are poinsettias poisonous? I’m afraid my new kitten might eat some poinsettia leaves.

A. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are one of the most tested consumer plants on the market, but we have never been able to put the myth of their toxicity to rest. It started with the death of a child whose father was stationed in Hawaii in 1919 -- the 2-year-old's death was mistakenly attributed to eating poinsettia leaves. In 1971, Ohio State University tested all parts of the plant, including leaves and sap, and found it to be non-toxic to people and pets.

POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, says that a 50-pound child would have to eat 500-600 leaves to exceed the experimental doses in the Ohio State study that found no toxicity.

Children and pets would be unlikely to eat more than a leaf or two due to the astringent nature of the sap and the unpleasant taste. The milky sap can cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals, and can inflame the more sensitive tissues in the mouth and esophagus. Those who consume enough of the plant may experience nausea and vomiting but nothing life-threatening.

poinsettias.jpg

In a study by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, there was no toxicity of any kind in 22,793 poinsettia exposures. The study was based on data collected nationwide by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Nevertheless, a 1995 survey by the Society of American Florists found that 66 percent of adult participants believed poinsettias to be toxic.

You should be more concerned about the other houseplants your kitten has been after. Many common houseplants are toxic to cats, including asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus), jade plant (Crassula argentea), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia), corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), pothos (Epipremnum aureum), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), lilies (Lilium spp.), heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron spp.) and peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.). While this is not an exhaustive list, it hits some of the most common houseplants known to be toxic to cats.

Q. How do you keep a poinsettia healthy over the holidays?

A. To keep your poinsettia growing well during this year’s Christmas season, keep it in a sunny window devoid of hot afternoon sun. Hot afternoon sun is typically on the south or west side of your house, while morning sun on the east is much more 'gentle.' Do not allow the poinsettia's foliage to touch cold glass. Although poinsettias will require more frequent watering in the sun, ample sunlight keeps its colorful bracts bright. (What people think of as poinsettia flowers are actually colorful leaves that are correctly called bracts; the true flowers of a poinsettia are the small, yellowish structures in the center of the bracts.)

Avoid placing your poinsettia where it will be subjected to cold drafts (near outside doors, cold air vents, leaky windows). Poinsettias are tropical plants, and can be injured by temperatures below 50 degrees. Keep the soil evenly moist, but never soaking wet.

Be sure to remove decorative foil from the pot when watering; you can replace the foil when water stops running through the drainage holes. You don't want it holding excess water next to the roots since it can cause root rot. Alternatively, punch holes in the foil toward the bottom to allow excess water to drain.

Poinsettia Fertilization

Fertilize your poinsettia every 2 to 3 weeks with a complete water-soluble fertilizer at half-strength while bracts are showing color. Something with a fertilizer analysis such as 20-20-20 will work well.

red-poinsettia.jpg

Poinsettia bracts generally fade in late March or April. Continue to care for it as you would any other houseplant. Keep it in a sunny location, and water as needed to keep the soil from drying out.  Quit fertilizing once the bracts fade. Cut the stems back to six to eight inches. This keeps your poinsettia from getting too tall and leggy.

It’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves and long sleeves when cutting back a poinsettia because the milky sap can irritate your skin if you are sensitive to it. Reduce watering so that the top inch or two of soil dries between waterings, but never allow the plant to wilt completely. This gives your poinsettia a slight rest period before it begins active growth again.


Q: I do I care for my poinsettia and get it to re-bloom at the right time next Christmas?

A: During the holiday season, keep your poinsettia in a sunny location, but avoid hot afternoon sun. Do not allow its leaves to touch cold window glass. Your poinsettia will require more frequent watering in the sun. What people think of as poinsettia flowers are really leaves called bracts; the true flowers are the small, yellowish structures in the center of the bracts.

Do not place your poinsettia where it will be subjected to cold drafts; they are tropical plants and can be injured by temperatures below 50 degrees. Keep the soil evenly moist, never sopping wet. Remove decorative foil from the pot when watering; you can replace it once water stops running through the drainage holes, or punch holes in the foil to allow water to drain out. Otherwise, it will hold water around the roots and cause them to rot.

Fertilizing your Poinsettia

Fertilize every two to three weeks with a complete water-soluble fertilizer at half-strength while bracts are showing color. Products such as Miracle-Gro (15-30-15) or Peters 20-20-20 are fine.

The bracts generally fade in late March or April. Care for it as you would any other houseplant. Keep it in a sunny location and water as needed to keep the soil from drying out. Quit fertilizing once the bracts fade. Cut the stems back to 6 to 8 inches. It's a good idea to wear rubber gloves and long sleeves when cutting back a poinsettia because the milky sap can irritate your skin if you are sensitive to it.

Watering your Poinsettia

Reduce watering so that the top inch or two of soil dries between waterings, but never allow the plant to wilt completely. This gives your poinsettia a slight rest period before it grows again.

Repot your Poinsettia

In early June, when your poinsettia is putting on strong new growth, repot it into a pot that is one size larger than its current container. If a plant is repotted into too large a pot, the root system is surrounded by a large volume of soil that stays wet too long after a good soaking, which can cause root rot.

poinsettia.jpg

Once it is transplanted, place it back in a sunny window. Your poinsettia can also spend the summer outside in a sunny location protected from the hottest afternoon sun and drying winds.

Fertilize every other week with a 'complete' fertilizer (i.e. 20-20-20 which is one with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). To encourage bushy poinsettia plants, pinch the new growth back by an inch or two in July.

You can repeat the pinching again in late August if your poinsettia is growing very vigorously. If you choose to summer your poinsettia outside, be sure to move it back indoors before night temperatures fall below 60 degrees.

Whitefly Problems on Poinsettias

Inspect your plant regularly for signs of insect problems. Whiteflies are the most common pest of poinsettias. If a cloud of white insects hovers around the plant when the foliage is disturbed, they are likely whiteflies. Repeated applications of insecticidal soap should take of the problem. Insects should be less of a problem on indoor plants.

Getting a Poinsettia to Re-Bloom

Getting your poinsettia to bloom for next Christmas requires a little planning. Poinsettias bloom in response to long nights. You should start providing prolonged nights the last week of September or the first week of October in order to have it in bloom for Christmas.

Move your poinsettia to a closet or cover it with a box or basket every night; leave it in place for 14 hours. This must be done nightly for eight to 10 weeks. The dark cycle cannot be interrupted, not even briefly, or it will delay flowering.

Move your poinsettia to a sunny location during the day. Once the small bracts begin to appear, you can leave it in its normal place and stop subjecting it to darkness.

MORE:

Index of more Christmas information

How to keep a Christmas tree fresh

Kissing under the mistletoe

Christmas tree history and care