Poinsettias: Unlikely Christmas Plants

Poinsettia History, Poison myth, and Plant Care

Nov 30, 2017
Poinsettia is an unlikely Christmas flower.

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

Doreen G. Howard

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Ruby-red poinsettias signaled Christmas to me as a child, especially growing up in balmy southern California. But why is it classic Christmas flower in North America? And are the plants poisonous?

A week or two before Christmas, my Dad always gave my Mom a potted poinsettia wrapped in shiny foil. 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.

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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.

Poinsettia 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.

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

Poinsettia Plant Care

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.

Do you bring poinsettias into your home at Christmas? Learn more about caring for poinsettias—and other holiday plants!

 

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

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