The poinsettia has become the holiday plant. Millions are sold each December and millions meet a horrible fate.

Native to Mexico, the poinsettia blooms in response to the decrease in daylength in fall. Its flowers are actually quite small, but the colorful modified leaves -- called bracts -- surrounding the flowers are spectacular.

Red is the natural color of poinsettias, but constant hybridization in the past few decades has yielded startling and beautiful variations. Pink, cream, burgundy and salmon poinsettias are now common. Others are striped, speckled or ruffled. Lime green and golden orange varieties have just been introduced.

There's no excuse for killing one. Remember that these tropical beauties suffer a big shock moving from a humid greenhouse to your dry house. Counteract this by increasing the humidity around them.

This can be done by grouping them with other plants to create a humid zone. Put a saucer of pebbles, marbles or decorative stones beneath the pot. As you water the plant, the excess water will fill the saucer.

As it evaporates, the extra humidity will benefit the poinsettia. In addition, keep it away from heat vents that will dry it out.

The decorative foil the plant often comes wrapped in can also be a death trap. Either remove it or poke holes in it so water can drain out. Otherwise you'll end up with a swamp and the roots will rot. Endeavor to keep the soil slightly moist but not soggy.

Poinsettias also need bright light. A sunny window is best. Rarely is an office desk in a dry building suitable for a poinsettia.

If you take care, your plant may continue to look great all winter. In late spring, prune it back, repot it and take it outside for the summer. In fall bring it back inside. Put it in a sunny room in which no artificial light is used after sundown. The plant will then follow the natural process of setting flowers in response to the shortening of days.

Many people manage to bring their poinsettias back into bloom. Just be absolutely certain that no light after dark disrupts the process.