by Ray Linville | Photography by Carol Wilson

img_3125What is the best-selling potted plant? Would you be surprised to learn that it’s the poinsettia? For many of us, the poinsettia is our favorite, particularly this month. My family thinks that the poinsettia is so attractive that we keep it to flower again for another season.
As much as we appreciate poinsettias, they frustrate some of us. Have you ever tried to nurture them to change color for the holiday season?  Sometimes when we try, the timing doesn’t occur as planned.
However, how the leaves turn a brilliant red or another color is not a mystery. Although the poinsettia is not native to our area, we can coax it to perform beautifully.
To get a poinsettia to bloom, keep it in total darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. beginning around the first of October. Any exposure to light can prevent flowering. Then around early to mid-December, the bracts—the specialized leaves in the center—begin to flame.
Similar to a bougainvillea, a poinsettia has colorful bracts surrounding less colorful flowers. Its color comes from these brilliant leaves, not from its flowers, which are small and yellow. The bracts are most often flaming red, but they can also be orange, pink, cream, white, pale green or marbled.
The flowering is induced by a process known as photoperiodism, which means that the plant reacts to relative lengths of light and dark periods, and for a poinsettia, the nights need to be long. A poinsettia requires 12 hours of continual darkness for at least five days—any short period of light at night, even light from a streetlight, can prevent or interfere with flowering—while receiving abundant light during the day.
It’s hard to believe that the poinsettia is named for a U.S. diplomat rather than a botanist. When serving in Mexico as ambassador after his appointment by President John Quincy Adams, Joel R. Poinsett noticed a beautiful shrub with large red leaves growing by the side of a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in Charleston, and thus began the poinsettia’s journey into the Carolinas and the rest of our country.
With a little effort, we can have as much success in our area as Poinsett did in Charleston. Depending on how you care for it, a poinsettia can retain its beauty for weeks, and some can stay attractive for months—enough beauty for us to sing its praises.
“So happy, happy, I remember beneath the poinsettia’s red in warm December,” wrote poet Claude McKay, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance who immigrated in 1912 from Jamaica, where the plant is also known as flame-leaf.
Now, if someone would just show me how to get Easter lilies to bloom on time in a second year.


Linville is a contributing writer for the N.C. Folklife Institute and writes about Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at