COVID-19 – Extend Poinsettia Life With Proper Care

The December glory of a poinsettia can fade to January/February paleness in a matter of weeks.  Those bright red, white or pink leaves (bracts) can turn limp, curl up and drop, creating a desire to toss it out with the rest of the Christmas leftovers.

But, all is not lost; your holiday poinsettia plant can provide enjoyment and a great “fight back” against the blahs of winter and be a wonderful gift during a time that is traditionally associated with boredom and isolation.  It’s especially important in the winter of 20-21 when so many of us are stuck indoors due to the limitations of COVID-19.

Keeping a poinsettia healthy requires the awareness that they are sensitive to drafts, ultra-low humidity, temperatures that are too cool or warm and soggy or dry soils.  These potentially adverse conditions can cause a dropping of the “leaves”, botanically known as bracts on a poinsettia plant.

Here’s what to do to give poinsettias a chance: 

  1. Keep a uniform room temperature between 65 and 68 degrees if possible.
  2. Put the plant near a bright, sunny window, just out of the direct sunlight.  Keep in mind that window glass can be cold, so avoid allowing the leaves to touch the glass…in fact 3-4 inches away from the window is best.
  3. Take care with soil moisture…more plants are killed by overwatering than any other reason, especially in winter when plants are growing slowly and the need for water is lower than in summer.  Learn to gauge the moisture content of the soil by its color and feel.  As the surface dries, it becomes lighter in color.  When the soil is too dry it becomes firm and sometimes cracked; when saturated, it feels slimy and sticky.  Strive to keep the soil moist, but not soggy or dry.
  4. There is probably no need to fertilize, especially if it was a 2020 purchase.  Most greenhouse grown poinsettias are properly fertilized during the fall, and since the plants are growing slowly in winter, adding more nutrients will only lead to leaf/stem burn since they won’t be utilized.
  5. If most or all of the leaves fall off, simply cut off each stem just above where a leaf was attached to the stem and push the plant a little closer to the light.  If the stems are healthy, new leaves will form at that place on the stem.  These will be the ones to carry the load in 2021.
  6. Turn the plant ¼ turn each week to prevent it from growing too much in one direction and becoming lopsided.
  7. Be mindful of overly wet soils that can produce root rot, which is the most common poinsettia disease inside a home in winter.  Whiteflies, small little bugs that feed on the undersides of the leaves are devastating, so inspect for them routinely.

Finally, it’s time to move on from the December holiday look to the January/February winter feng shui by removing the foil or plastic wrapper.  It’s not time to be pretty…it’s time to have a great indoor plant.  Impervious coverings often damage these plants by holding in too much water, leading to a demise of the roots, slowing of growth and root rot.

Stay tuned to GroBigRed for instructions on how to care for poinsettias in spring and summer.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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