It’s the best-selling plant in the United States year in and year out—and a Charlestonian planted the seed that made it all possible.
Well, technically speaking, it was a clipping, not a seed. But there’s no quibbling about the fact that a native of Charleston is responsible for bringing the holiday season’s most popular plant to America. In fact, that’s why they named it after him.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was born in Charleston in 1779, saw a strikingly unusual crimson-colored flower for the first time when he was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. It intrigued him, and in 1828 Poinsett, who dabbled in botany, brought some clippings home to Charleston, successfully cultivated them in his greenhouse and began sharing the distinctive plants with friends in the Holy City and beyond.
The plant got its botanical name—Euphorbia pulcherrima—in 1833, but by 1837 it had been rechristened as Poinsettia pulcherrima to honor Poinsett’s role in introducing it to a wider audience. Today the poinsettia is the most popular flowering plant sold in the United States, with an estimated 65 million purchased annually during the winter holidays.
If Ambassador Poinsett was entranced by that stunning deep red flower in 1828, just imagine his reaction if he could see the array of colors available today. Beyond the classic deep red, poinsettias in pink, white, salmon, purple, yellow and marbled hues crowd store shelves, with new shades introduced each year. It’s the plant’s leaves—actually modified leaves called bracts—that put on the show we love. The flowers are the small yellow blossoms at the center of the bracts.
Amy Dabbs, a consumer horticulture expert in the Charleston office of the Clemson Extension Service, says poinsettias need six hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. “Direct sunlight may fade the color of the bracts, and you’ll have to water more often,” she says.
Temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees are ideal. “The dry heat inside homes in the winter will cause the leaves to yellow and fall off and the flower bracts to fade early,” Dabbs says. Keep plants away from heating vents, and also steer clear of drafty places, because at temperatures below 50 degrees, plants are likely to lose their leaves due to cold injury.
Keep the soil moderately moist, watering when it feels dry to the touch, Dabbs says. “Don’t let the soil dry out totally, and never let the plant sit in standing water. Take them out of the foil wrapper to water them so the water can drain.” There’s no need to fertilize them during the season, she adds.
A poinsettia from one holiday season can be made to rebloom the following year, but, like Santa Claus, that’s something lots of folks talk about but few have seen. Dabbs says it’s doable, but demanding. “I always tell people to support the horticulture industry and buy new ones each year! I can never keep them alive long enough to keep them outdoors in summer because I always end up sick and tired of sad plants before temperatures get warm enough to put them outdoors,” she says.
But if you’re up for the challenge, here’s what the Clemson Extension expert advises you to do. First, when the bracts start to fade in March or April, prune the plant back to about eight inches tall. It will look scraggly, but new growth eventually will emerge from the nodes along the stem. Keep the plant in a sunny window and water it regularly. Once the nighttime temps don’t go below 50 degrees, you can keep it outside.
In early June, transplant the poinsettia into a container two to four inches bigger than the original pot. Use a soil mix with lots of organic matter. Pinch back the shoot tips or prune back the branches—but only until the end of August. During spring, summer and fall, fertilize the plant every two or three weeks with a well-balanced, complete fertilizer (such as 10-10-10).
Starting the first week of October, keep the plant indoors in total darkness for 14 continuous hours each night and day. Putting the plant in a closet or covering it with a box will work well for this stage of the process. During this same time, the plant must also get six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily. Depending on the response time of the particular poinsettia cultivar you have, the plant should come into full bloom during November or December.
After explaining all that, Dabbs adds, “This is why I say, let the professionals grow them!”
Ann Thrash is a food, home and garden writer and editor who lives Mount Pleasant.