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Poinsettia is an unlikely Christmas flower

December 7, 2011

The red poinsettia means Christmas to many, but it's really a tropical euphorbia from Mexico.

Credit: Doreen G. Howard
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Ruby, red poinsettias signaled Christmas to me as a child, especially growing up in balmy Southern California. 

My Dad always gave my Mom a potted one, wrapped in shiny foil, a week or two before the holiday.  And, my Aunt Dodo had a nine-foot-tall one growing next to her front door. 

Bracts on it started turning pinkish around Halloween, then red, and remained ablaze until after Valentine’s Day.

After earning a degree in organic chemistry, which initiated my love of plants and growing them, it occurred to me that poinsettias were the most unlikely flower to symbolize Christmas. 

They grow in warm climates, native to Mexico and Central America, and are pampered, delicate throw-away plants in most parts of this country.

The reason blazing red (and now pink, white, orange, plus combinations of these colors) poinsettias are the Christmas flower is an accidental discovery by Joel Poinsett, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1828 and aggressive marketing.  An amateur botanist, Poinsett saw the red flowers when visiting the Mexican state of Taxco, shortly before he was thrown out of the country for trying to buy Texas from the Mexicans for a million dollars.

He shipped plants to South Carolina, as he left the country, where they were propagated and called “Mexican Fire Plant”.  The plant was shared with botanical gardens and growers across the country.  And, it was renamed for Poinsett.  Paul Ecke in California began growing the plant in the tens of thousands for the Christmas season, when other flowers were scarce.  The rest is history, and today, the Paul Ecke Ranch is still the largest commercial producer of poinsettias in the world.

Poison myth

Poinsettias are euphorbias, a plant family known for its white, milky latex sap, which can cause eye and skin irritation. Plants are not poisonous, as many think, but they are problematic for those with latex allergies and small animals.  According to the Poison Control Information Center, the average person would have to eat 500 to 700 leaves to incur serious digestive problems.

The colored leaves, known as bracts, are not the poinsettia plant's flowers.  They are the tiny yellow or orange buds in the center.

Caring for plants

Raised in greenhouses in cool temperatures (60 to 72 degrees) with high humidity and light intensity, it can be tricky to duplicate the ideal spot for poinsettias.

  • Place in front of a south or west-facing window, but don’t let leaves touch the cold glass.
  • Avoid spots near heating vents and doors.  Cold drafts will cause leaves to drop.
  • Maintain temperatures that are comfortable to people.  Be sure to lower the thermostat at night so that plants cool off.
  • Use a humidifier or place plants on a tray filled with pebbles and water.
  • Water when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch.  If underwatered, plants wilt and shed leaves.  Overwatering causes roots to die.

Breeders outdo themselves every year with new colors and forms of poinsettias.  This one is a Super Mini, grown in a 2-inch pot, perfect for office desks and window sills.  Photo courtesty of Greenhouse Growers.

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

In stores now!

Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including Amazon.com.

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