The Poinsettia
This is my site Written by Geoff on December 1, 2002 – 8:20 pm

The Poinsettia once only offered in red, is now found in many colors, even yellow. What we see as the colorful flowers are the leaf bracts. It is called the “Flame Leaf” in Central America or “Flower of the Holy Night” and was brought here over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. 

The Legend 

The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus, but they had nothing. 

One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way, they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them to this day. 

Perhaps you’d be interested in knowing a little bit more about the poinsettia plant you buy every Christmas: 

  1. Did you know that the poinsettia’s main attraction is not its flowers, but its leaves? The flowers of the plant are the yellow clustered buds in the center. The colored leafy parts are bracts or modified leaves.
  2. Red is the most popular color, accounting for roughly three-quarters of all sales nationwide, followed by white and pink. Poinsettias come in a variety of colors from red, salmon, and apricot to yellow, cream, and white. There are also unusual speckled or marbled varieties like “Jingle Bells” and “Candy Cane” with several colors blended together. New varieties are introduced yearly with even more variation in height and colors.
  3. How many poinsettias do you think are sold in a year? If you guessed around 60 million, you’d be in the ballpark. Would you believe that last year more than 65 million were sold nationwide? Poinsettias accounted for one-third of sales of all flowering potted plants. In economic terms, which is $237 million out of a total of $781 million in sales of all flowering potted plants!
  4. Although every state in the United States grows poinsettias commercially, California is the top producer with about 27 million pots grown, followed by Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, each with about 14 million pots.
  5. Did you know that in the wild, the poinsettia can reach heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across? It is actually a small tropical tree belonging to the Euphorbia plant family. Its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima although in English speaking countries it is more commonly known as the poinsettia. A native of southern Mexico, the poinsettia blooms in December and has been used in that country to decorate churches for centuries.
  6. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Aztecs used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric for clothing and the sap for medicinal purposes, including to help control fevers. They also considered the red color a symbol of purity, and so poinsettias were traditionally part of religious ceremonies.
  7. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and first United States ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant that became known as the poinsettia to this country. He discovered a shrub with brilliantly colored red leaves growing by the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico, in December 1828 and sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina. But did you know that most botanists then dismissed the poinsettia as a weed? Fortunately, Poinsett continued to study and breed this plant in his greenhouse, sharing plants with his horticulturist friends. It soon gained acceptance as a holiday plant, despite its very short bloom time. It was not until the 1960s that researchers were able to successfully breed plants to bloom more than just a few days.
  8. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. Never heard of it? Believe it or not, the United States has observed this official day since the mid-1800s. It honors the man and the plant he introduced. Poinsett died Dec.12, 1851.
  9. True or False? The poinsettia is a poisonous plant. If you answered false, you’re correct. The plant has been tested repeatedly and cleared of this charge by the National Poison Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and the American Medical Association. The POINSINDEX Information Service, the main information resource for poison control centers across the country, reports that even if a 50-pound child consumed more than 500 poinsettia bracts–the amount tested in scientific experiments–the consequences would not be fatal. Even at this high level, no toxicity was found.
  10. However, this does not mean that poinsettias are meant to be eaten. If ingested, this plant can cause stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children also may choke on the fibrous parts, so be sure to keep these plants out of their reach. The sticky white sap also may cause skin irritation for some people.
  11. Do you know the best way to prolong the life of this Christmas plant? Avoid hot or cold drafts, keep the soil moist not soggy, and place in a room with sufficient natural light.

Fun Facts About Poinsettias
by Leonard Perry
December 9, 2001

Poinsettias as mentioned are native to Mexico and like lots of heat. Growing them outdoors generally requires a minimum temperature of about 45 degrees, and they do best with night temperatures of about 60 degrees. If you want to plant a poinsettia in the garden after the holiday season, make sure to keep it healthy while indoors by placing the plant in a sunny, draft-free location and watering it when it is approaching dryness. Avoid sudden temperature changes. When the leaves fall in late winter, cut the stems back to the two healthiest buds and reduce watering to the bare minimum. 

When frost danger has past you can move the plants outdoors. When new growth begins to show, feed with an all purpose fertilizer every other week. The soil should be slightly acid. Use only a sterilized, lightweight potting mix. 

Poinsettias are short day plants. Although they will eventually bloom, if you want the plants in bloom for the holidays they must be subjected to at least six weeks of 14 hours of total darkness per day (mid to late September). This may be accomplished by placing a potted plant in a closet or unlighted room. The plant should then be returned to the light each day and given a minimum of 4 hours of direct sun. 

Here are some tips on how to keep these plants going: 

  1. Place the plant in bright light, but not direct sun.
  2. Keep soil slightly moist, not waterlogged.
  3. Feed with a liquid houseplant fertilizer.
  4. When the flowers fade, keep the leaves healthy by watering and feed as you would during the flowering season.
  5. The flowerless plant still needs bright light.
  6. Prune back during the growing season to control its size and shape so it won’t get thin and ungainly.
  7. Maintain a night temperature of 60 to 67 degrees.
  8. Mist leaves daily.

Poinsettias usually will outlast your desire to keep them!

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Modified: March 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm GMT-0800

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