Poinsettia: December Houseplant of the Month


What you first notice about the poinsettia are the beautifully colored leaves. They’re often thought to be the flowers, but are actually bracts that form a star shape around the true flowers, which are small and yellow, clustered in the center.

The classic red poinsettia is familiar, but trending for December 2019 are modern pastel colors such as salmon, pink, lemon and apricot. It’s an instant mood maker for the holidays and thereafter, because this winter bloomer provides a colourful start to 2020. 


The poinsettia or Christmas star (Euphorbia pulcherrima) originates from Mexico and Central America, where it grows as a deciduous shrub that can reach a height of 12 feet (4 meters). The plant blooms outdoors from November to February and loses its leaves entirely during the heat of the summer.

The Aztecs considered the plant to be holy; they called it Cuitlaxochitl. 

Poinsettia Assortment


The poinsettia is a “short day” plant: its star-shaped bracts take on color when the days get shorter, which coincides nicely with the Christmas period in the northern hemisphere. The range is constantly expanding, and poinsettia is offered from mini and standard sizes through to hanging plants and tree shapes. The main colors are red and white, while new colors such as lilac, salmon, cream and bicolored poinsettias are catching on quickly. 

Increasingly, merchants create what they see as added value by decorating the bracts with glitter, dyes or other decorative treatments. Be careful: sometimes these additions are bit garish!

The appealing bracts mean that the plant offers unlimited opportunities to create atmosphere in the run-up to Christmas.

What to Look for When Buying a Poinsettia 

Poinsettias come in all sizes and colors.
  • The pot size and number of bracts should be in proportion, and the plant must be mature enough to show good color.
  • There is a choice of single-headed plants, minis, topped or branched plants, standards of various heights and hanging plants.
  • They must all be free of pests and diseases; particularly check for the presence of whiteflies on the underside of the leaves.
  • Damaged bracts or foliage are usually caused during shipping or storage, particularly if temperatures are too low.
  • Yellow leaves indicate too little moisture, while the loss of buds in the center of the “flower” is a sign of insufficient light.

Care Tips 

If you accidentally break off a stem, use it as a cut flower!
  • The poinsettia is very cold sensitive, so make sure it is carefully wrapped at purchase for the trip home.
  • It likes a bright spot in the home, but doesn’t need full sun during the winter.
  • The soil should always be slightly damp.
  • The plant cannot cope with drafts or very warm locations, such as above the radiator or next to a crackling log fire.
  • If your poinsettia’s leaves turn yellow and drop off, you should place the plant in a cooler and lighter spot and increase the atmospheric humidity. That should perk it back up.
  • Fertilizer is only useful if you intend to keep and rebloom the plant; it can be applied at a reduced dose spring through summer.
  • After the bracts drop (they can last until May if the plant is exceptionally well cared for), you can rebloom your poinsettia by following the instructions given here.

Decorating with Poinsettias

Group smaller plants together for a more striking display.

The trend for December 2019 is a cheerful Christmas in pastel colors. Poinsettias can be added to other Christmas decorations in various festive styles, from classic red and white to trendy candy colors. The emphasis this year is on the pink, green and apricot shades. Display these modern colors in matching festive pots. 

One original idea is decorate your Christmas tree with mini poinsettias! So do so, remove the roots of these tiny plants from their pots and wrap them in sphagnum in order to prevent them from drying out or place them in the tree in little hanging buckets. 

Another idea? Decorate a large poinsettia with fairy lights as an alternative Christmas tree!

The poinsettia: you really can’t escape it! Every home needs at least one for Christmas!

Text and photos adapted from a press release by Thejoyofplants.co.uk.
Styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties

A Note From Your Poinsettia


Source: terryweaver.com, http://www.uihere.com & http://www.wallquotes.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog


I’m your poinsettia. I’ve been decorating your living room for a few days now and I’d love to do it for a long time to come, but for me to last, I need your help.

Don’t Let Me Drown!

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Pot covers may be cute, but they can also be deadly! Source: Karen McCourt, in.pinterest.com

First, a few words about that cute pot cover I’m sold in. I hate it!

True enough, it does make me look pretty, but it also causes me trouble. It’s completely watertight, allowing no drainage whatsoever, so when you water me, any excess water just accumulates and then my roots, which need to breathe air, start to drown and that’s the end of me!

So, could you please remove it or at least punch holes in the bottom, then set me in a plant saucer? That way the water can escape!

Thank you!


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Check frequently and water me thoroughly. Source: http://www.ftd.com

Second, watering.

I just came out of a huge greenhouse where my watering was automated: I’ve never been exposed to dry soil in my life! As soon as my soil got close to drying, a computer warned the system, and I was carefully inundated with nice warm water. It was heaven!

But there is no automatic watering system in your home. If you let my potting soil dry out, some of my roots will die and since I now have fewer roots, I won’t be able to support as many leaves. So, my lower leaves will turn yellow and fall off and I’ll be less attractive. If you do this a second time, I’ll lose even more leaves, then more again, then even some of my beautiful colored bracts! Sob! I’ll look like a tornado hit me and I just know you’ll toss me!

So, I need your help!

Get in the habit of touching my potting soil every three or four days. Go ahead and shove a finger right into it: that does me no harm whatsoever. If the soil seems damp, everything is fine, but check again in three or four days. If the soil seems dry, water me. Slowly, but abundantly, with tepid water (I hate cold water!), until the excess water starts to drip out of my pot’s drainage holes.

15 minutes after you water, come back and discard any water that remains in my saucer. That will make me so happy!

If you always water me well, I promise to stay in bloom right through the holidays!


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I can put up with shade for a while, but I really prefer sun! Source: www.ikea.com

Now let’s talk about light… and here I’m willing to compromise a bit. I prefer bright light, but I can tolerate a few days, even two or three weeks, with little light. So, yes, you can place me on a coffee table or desk away from any window during the holidays. After all, my role is to decorate your home. But afterwards, place me near a sunny window. Yes, full sun if possible, if not, the brightest conditions you can provide!

If I get a lot of sun in addition to regular watering, I’ll hold on to my bracts for ages, until as late as May or even June!

Other Care

A few more fairly minor details: I’m fine with hot temperatures during the day, but prefer cooler nights. So, if you could lower the thermostat just a bit before you go to bed, to maybe 65 ° F (18 ° C), I’d appreciate it. I’ll be able to sleep better.

And keep me out of cold drafts and away from radiators. Do you like blasts of cold or hot air? I didn’t think so. Well, neither do I!

And don’t feed me yet. Before I was sent to the store where you bought me, I was so heavily fertilized that I’m still full. I mean, Christmas Day turkey full! In fact, I won’t be hungry for a few months yet. In March, when the days get a little longer, that’s when I’ll then start looking for some extra minerals.

Then, just give me a bit of all-purpose fertilizer at each watering. A pinch or two will do: I’m not a greedy plant. Still, I don’t like being starved either.

Extending My Usefulness

Look, if I bloom until May or June, I figure I did my job. I hope you enjoyed my efforts! After that, it seems to me that I will have the right to rest a little. Maintaining colorful bracts is exhausting, so don’t complain if I drop them: you’ll have had your money’s worth.

What, do you want me to bloom again? Hmm. Let me think about it.

You see, that wasn’t part of the contract. The nurseryman who produced me certainly didn’t have that in mind! He saw me as a temporary decoration, something you’d dispose of when I start to decline. However, it’s true that you’ve been nice to me. So … okay, I’m willing to try. But that will require some extra effort on your part.

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Cut me back severely. Source: UKGardening, http://www.youtube.com

First, when my bracts start to fall off, cut me back severely, to 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) from the soil. Go ahead: it doesn’t hurt me! Instead, it will stimulate me to grow back more densely, so I’ll be even more beautiful next year.

Keep on watering me (never let me dry out!), fertilizing me and giving me the brightest light you can muster. You can even put me outside for the summer. I love that! But bring me back indoors in early fall, before the first frost.

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I need short days in order to bloom. Source: laidbackgardener.com

I’m now going to reveal you my biggest secret: I only bloom if I have long nights or, if you prefer, short days, that is, days of less than 12 hours. So, from the 22nd of September on, you can no longer keep me in a room that is illuminated at night. Even a few rays of light at the wrong moment can throw off my flowering!

Instead, place me somewhere I get intense sun during the day, but no light at all at night. Maybe you can put me in a guest room and remove all the light bulbs so that no one can turn on a light at night by accident? Or you can stuff me into a closet at six o’clock each evening, then move me back to a sunny spot at 8 am? Whatever works for you, but do give me those short days.

After about 2 months of short days, a little miracle will occur. The new leaves that appear at my top will be colored bracts! Moreover, as soon as I start to change color, you no longer have to worry about providing short days. It’s just to start the color change that I need days less than 12 hours long.

So, you’ve been so good to me that I’m going to give you a present: just do as I say and I’m going to bloom for Christmas next year, just for you! And the year after, and the year after, for as long as you like!

Faithfully yours,

Your beloved poinsettia,


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Unwrap Your Poinsettia Without Delay


Yes, do make sure your poinsettia is well wrapped against the cold when you bring it back from the store, but don’t leave it in its packaging. Source: http://www.alphapackaging.co.uk

If there is normally no problem leaving plants purchased for Christmas in their wrapping for 4 or 5 days, that’s not the case with the popular Christmas plant known as the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), often offered as a hostess gift during the holiday season. This plant produces ethylene, a toxic gas, and begins to poison itself in as little as 16 hours if there is no or little air circulation, especially at warm temperatures (over 60˚ F/16˚ C).

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Bracts and leaves can be damaged if left wrapped too long. Source: http://www.hydro-orchids.com

The main symptom of ethylene damage is wilting. When you remove the wrapping, the bracts and leaves look wilted even though the potting mix seems reasonably moist. Soon bracts and leaves start to fall off and the plant, although it is not yet dead, is no longer very presentable.  

If you plan to offer a poinsettia as a gift, either buy it the same day you plan to give it or, if you have to buy it in advance, unwrap it immediately when you get home, then rewrap it just before you leave.

Christmas Plants Around the World


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Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

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Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.


In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although are mostly seem either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

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Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, counting on sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for awhile, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

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English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become abundant in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

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The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer… but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

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The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

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A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

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Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.


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Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

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Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

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Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

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Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

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Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.


In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

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Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

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Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

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Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.


The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

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To Northeners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well-known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

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Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).


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The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

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The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source:  JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

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One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

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New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.

So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

Your Poinsettia is Sick… But That’s a Good Thing!



In nature, poinsettias are tall shrubs, even small trees.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has not always been the compact plant we know today. It is actually a large shrub or small tree reaching 12 feet (4 m) or more in height and diameter, far too large for the average home. Thus, for a long time, the only poinsettias sold as Christmas plants were as cut flowers!

In 1923, however, a cut-flower grower from California, Ecke Nursery, noticed a short, compact poinsettia, barely 30 inches (75 cm) high at full maturity. While a normal poinsettia is said to be “restricted branching” and only produces branches about every 2 feet (60 cm) or so along the stem, leading to a very large and open plant, the new poinsettia—said to be “free branching”—produced abundant branches, thus forming what was almost a ball of foliage and flowers.


Poinsettia leaf showing symptoms of mosaic virus.

Unfortunately, despite its beautiful shape, the new poinsettia lacked vigor and showed disease symptoms when the least bit stressed—irregular yellow marks on the foliage, called a mosaic—making it essentially unsaleable. Furthermore, other poinsettias in the same greenhouse began to produce plants with the same symptoms. It was quickly assumed that “free branching” effect was in fact due to a disease linked to mottled foliage. Eventually studies did show the marbling was caused by a virus, now called poinsettia mosaic virus (PMV). So the compact poinsettia no longer seemed useful, but was rather seen as a disaster by the burgeoning poinsettia industry. The recommendation at that time was to destroy any compact poinsettias on sight so the disease would not spread to other poinsettias.

An Experiment That Paid Off

The scientists of the time were, however, experimenting with treatments against different mosaics in plants and had discovered that a heat treatment could destroy mosaic viruses. So virus-infected poinsettias were given the heat treatment and voilà! The foliage became a beautiful deep green without any mottling. The virus had been destroyed. But to the amazement of the scientists, the plant remained compact and well branched. What had happened? Studies showed the virus was indeed gone. For a long time, nobody understood what was going on.

Then another experiment turned up very interesting results. When a normal, restricted-branching (i.e. giant) poinsettia was grafted onto a free-branching poinsettia, it too began to branch abundantly and stay compact. Without actually knowing what was going on, poinsettia growers began to convert their large poinsettias into dwarf ones for the potted plant market by grafting them unto dwarf plants. Thus the potted poinsettia industry was born!

A Dwarfing Infection

Today we know that what makes free-branching poinsettias so dwarf and densely branched is a phytoplasma, an organism similar to a bacteria that is found in the tissues of infected plants. Originally, it was transferred to poinsettias coupled with the poinsettia mosaic virus, but since it is temperature resistant, unlike the virus, it was not destroyed by the heat treatment. From the point of view of a wild poinsettia, this phytoplasma would be a disaster. Since the plant remains small and dense, in the wild it would quickly be overtaken by surrounding plants and they would create so much shade that the dwarf poinsettia would be weakened or even shaded out entirely.


A potted poinsettia … proudly displaying its dwarfed, phytoplasma-produced habit.

For poinsettia growers, though, the dwarfing phytoplasma is a godsend. It gives short, compact, well branched, and densely flowering plants that are otherwise just as vigorous as a phytoplasma-free poinsettia … and the resulting dwarf poinsettia gave a plant that was now readily accepted by the public as a living Christmas decoration. And to make things even better, greenhouse growers could transfer this phytoplasma to any other poinsettia via grafting. Today all poinsettias sold as potted plants—which is well over 99% of all the 65 million poinsettias produced around the world—are infested with phytoplasma … and no one is complaining.

A Beautiful Disease

When you contemplate the beautiful poinsettia in your living room, with its dense habit and numerous blooms, it’s odd to think it is, in fact, sick. But the phytoplasma is an essentially benign disease and causes no harm to the plant other than leaving if compact and well branched, so no one is complaining! Wouldn’t it be nice if we all suffered from diseases with only beneficial effects!

Reblooming a Poinsettia the Laidback Way



Your poinsettia looked like this when you bought it…

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) you bought for Christmas last year is probably now a small green shrub… and will remain a small green shrub if you don’t do something about it.


And probably like this right now.

You see, the poinsettia is a short-day plant, that is to say, it only blooms when days are less than 12 hours long. So its flowering starts to be initiated starting about September 22 in the Northern Hemisphere… and usually actually begins to occur about two months later, well in time for Christmas.

It all sounds wonderful: as days get shorter, the poinsettia should simply bloom naturally, right? Well, that may work in the plant’s native Mexico, or in other tropical countries where it grows outdoors, but it won’t work in the average home.

You see, we light our homes at night, extending the number of hours of daylight to 16, 17, or 18 hours a day. Yet what the plant really requires is no light at all from the end of the afternoon until the following morning. Even a single ray of light at the wrong time and it may not bloom.

So what’s a gardener to do?

The Hard Way

When I first started gardening, I was told you had to put your poinsettia in a closed box or a closet at 4 pm each day and remove it daily, putting it back in the sunlight, at 8 am. And that does work… but what a job! It means you have to be home at the right time each day (forget job considerations, or taking a weekend trip), plus you have to remember to do it every single day, without fail (not my strength: I’m good on resolutions, but weak in followthrough). If you forget even once, the plant won’t bloom. I’d be surprised even one person in 10 gets their poinsettia to bloom that way, yet check out most websites and books: that’s still the usual advice!

The Laidback Way

Here’s how I get my poinsettias (note the plural: I have all kinds, in lots of different colors) to rebloom. It works every time and requires no daily effort.

Place the plant in a room that you don’t usually use at night, but that is at least moderately sunny during the day: a guest room, for example. Now unscrew all the light bulbs in the room. Next, place the poinsettia near the window. Since you removed the light bulbs, even if you enter the room in the evening and try to turn the light on by accident (forgetting that is temporarily forbidden), you simply can’t. Whatever you were looking for in that room, you’ll just have to search for in the dark or wait until daylight to retrieve. And because your poinsettia has had a daily regime of short days, it will necessarily bloom at Christmas.

You don’t have a room that is not used at night? Then place your poinsettia near a sunny window somewhere else indoors and set up a panel of some sort between it and the rest of the room. Even a “wall” of taller houseplants will do, as long as no artificial light reaches the poinsettia. And this will give you a beautifully blooming poinsettia with no extra effort.

Otherwise, continue your usual care through the fall, remembering especially to water when the soil is almost dry and adding a bit of fertilizer. There is no need for special temperatures or extra high humidity… and certainly don’t prune (you’d be cutting off future flowering stems).

Merry Christmas in advance!

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day


Unwrap your Poinsettia Right Away

décembre 12If there is normally no problem leaving plants purchased for Christmas in their wrapping for 4 or 5 days, that is not the case with the popular Christmas plant known as the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), often offered as a hostess gift during the holiday season. This plant produces ethylene, a toxic gas, and begins to poison itself in as little as 16 hours if there is no or little air circulation. Soon the bracts fall off and the plant, although it is not necessarily dead yet, won’t be very presentable. If you plan to offer a poinsettia as a gift, but not for a few days, unwrap it immediately when you get home and rewrap it just before you leave.

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day


Having A Blue Christmas?

décembre 5-anglaisGarden centers, box stores and supermarkets are all decked out for the Holidays with beautiful poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in shades of red, pink, white, cream… and more recently, blue, purple or orange, with sparkles to boot. The first series of colors is natural: through selection and hybridization, it has been possible to take the normally red-bracted poinsettia and cause it to have bracts in various shades of pink and white, sometimes even bicolors. The intense blues, purples, and oranges are fake, resulting from a special dye being sprayed onto the bracts. (The sparkles are fake too, but that, most people have figured out.)

If you’re like me, you keep your poinsettias from year to year. Mine bloom faithfully every year starting in late November (I just put them in a room with no artificial light starting in September, as they need short days in order to bloom, and voilà! They bloom for the Holidays). But if you keep the dyed ones, you’ll find that most will have white bracts from the second year on (dyes show up better on a white poinsettia than a red or pink one).

Poinsettias aren’t the only plants being artificially colored. There are now fluorescent blue and purple orchids (these are actually injected with dyes!), succulents with leaves spray-painted pink and purple and even anthuriums with flowers lacquered in various unlikely colors.

All these shades will eventually wear off as new growth takes over and the plant will go back to its original color. So before you get excited about a plant you’ve found in some exotic new color, check with the merchant. Hopefully he’ll be able to tell you if it’s a fake or the real thing.