Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They bloom in winter in response to the change in day length that begins in fall. The plants were first brought to our country in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsette when he served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

Wild poinsettias are tall--up to ten feet--and scraggly. It's taken years of intense breeding to produce the short, bushy plants we display. Breeding is also responsible for the many colors and patterns of modern-day poinsettias. Although the classic red is still popular, these festive plants may now be pink, salmon, burgundy, peach or cream. Many varieties are streaked or speckled or combine two colors on each bract. One variety has crinkled petals that resemble those of roses. Vegetable dies sprayed on plants result in startling blue, purple or orange flowers.

When you bring a plant home, remember that it's been growing in the comfort of a humid greenhouse. It's bound to drop a few leaves just from the stress of the trip. If your house is hot and dry, it will drop even more. The answer is not to drown it with water. Punch a hole in that foil wrapping. Set it in a saucer and add gravel or small stones. The excess water that drains from the plant will collect and evaporate throughout the day, adding a bit of humidity. Keep the soil moist but not sopping wet. A portable humidifier is a great aid in growing poinsettias and many other houseplants.

Keep the plant in bright light but away from furnace registers. With care, your poinsettia will make it through the holiday season in good form. While a few people keep their plants until the next year, it's extremely challenging to get it to bloom again next year (electric lights will throw the formation of flowers off schedule). Enjoy the plant now and then go ahead and consign it to the compost pile to break down and enrich your garden soil in the future.

Plants are courtesy of Tagawa Gardens.