Handling problems with poinsettias this winter

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During a grocery run this week, I was taken by the stunning poinsettias for sale and had to bring one home. They’re such a festive addition to the Christmas holiday decorations, but I often wondered about the connection between this exotic looking plant and Christmas. 

The Mexican legend behind this beautiful plant makes it even more endearing. The story tells of how a young peasant girl was on her way to Christmas Eve service, but felt badly because she didn’t have a gift to give to leave at the Nativity scene. Her cousin told her that any gift was wonderful in Baby Jesus’ eyes, so she gathered a bouquet of weeds alongside the road and placed them in the creche when she arrived at church. Supposedly, they were immediately transformed into the gorgeous red flowers, and subsequently the poinsettia was called “Flores de Noche Buena,” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.” 

Hailing from southern Mexico and Central America poinsettias are acclimated to hot, dry climates so they need a warm home with bright light and no drafts. Living on the Montana prairie, this does not describe our home, which might be problematic to the poinsettias longevity. If a poinsettia looks sick or is dropping its leaves, including the colorful red (or pink or white) “petals” that are actually modified leaves, not flowers, the most likely reason is it is not happy with its environment. Keep the poinsettia in the sunniest window possible, but make sure that it is above 65 degrees without frequent drafts. Even bringing it home (especially when we had 40 mph winds like yesterday) can stress the plant. If the leaves are falling off or drooping, try to give it the best conditions possible and see if it pops out of its funk in a couple of weeks. Also, don’t forget to feed the plants using either a water soluble fertilizer every couple of weeks or add time-released Osmocote.

Water poinsettias from the base, preferably sitting them in a sink for a short amount of time, because water on their leaves can result in powdery mildew. Besides the indicative white on the leaves, you’ll know this is the culprit if you have yellow and brown spots on the leaves and the colorful bracts. 

Another reason to water them from the base is to prevent spotted anthracnose, also called poinsettia scab, which is a fungal infection that thrives in humid conditions, as well as when there is water directly on the leaves. Looks for raised lesions on the stems, along with spots with purple margins on the leaves themselves. You can treat the plant with a fungicide if it is one you really want to save, but it might be easier – and safer for any other indoor plants you have – to bag it and pitch it. 

Whiteflies are probably the biggest pest issue with poinsettias. Fortunately, they are attracted to the yellow sticky cards. Set a couple near the plant, but don’t forget about the potential eggs or larvae. You’ll want to spritz the underside of the leaves with insecticidal soap or Neem oil to eliminate the next generation, or you’re going to want to ask for sticky traps for Christmas! 

Poinsettias brighten up a wintertime room with their festive and bright hues. Even though it might be a little fussy with our interior conditions during these darkest days of the season, they’re so worth having in our homes to remind us of the light. 

Meet Amy Grisak

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