Poinsettia – History and Legends

Poinsettia, Sparkling Punch
Poinsettia, Sparkling Punch

Can you guess what is the best-selling potted plant in the United States and Canada? I was amazed to learn that the Poinsettia is the most popular by far. Here are some other interesting tidbits:

History & Legends

  • The Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “very beautiful”

  • The showy leaves or petals, called “bracts”, are not the actual flower. The flowers of the poinsettia are in the center of the bracts and are inconspicuous and contain a sweetly fragrant nectar

The center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
The center portion that is green and yellow is the actual flower
  • The cultivation of Poinsettias originated with the Aztecs hundreds of years ago in Mexico.  Montezuma, the last Aztec king, would have Poinsettias brought into the city, which is now known as Mexico City, by caravans because he liked them so much

  • Aztecs used the bracts, the colored portion, as a dye, and the sap as a medicinal to control fevers

  • Joel Poinsett, a botanist and the first U.S. minister to Mexico in 1825, found the plant blooming on the side of the road, which the native people regarded as a weed, took cuttings, and sent some plants to his home in South Carolina

  • Poinsett shared his finds with other plant enthusiasts and that is how the poinsettia came to the United States

Poinsettia Valentine
Poinsettia Valentine
  • The Ecke family grew Poinsettias in southern California in the 1920’s, primarily as a cut flower and landscape plant and remain to this day, the largest producer of Poinsettias in the US

  •  Grown as field grown potted plants for the cut flower trade, Poinsettias were shipped all over the country by train. Poinsettias really gained wide-spread recognition through media promotions on The Tonight Show and The Bob Hope Christmas Specials. This promotion ensured that Poinsettias were as much a part of the holiday tradition as Christmas evergreen trees

  • When the flowers or stems are cut, they ooze a milky sap that can cause people with latex sensitivities to have an allergic reaction.

  • Contrary to popular belief, Poinsettias are not poisonous. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.

  • Red is the most popular color, and the variety called “Prestige Red” tops the popularity list

  • Poinsettias are now the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada!

Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas
Poinsettias with blue hydrangeas

Color Palette

Breeding of the poinsettia began with the goal of improving cultivars that would retain their leaves and bracts for a longer period. The breeding also created stronger stems, multiple branching, earlier blooming, and the palette of colors that we recognize today. These modern cultivars last longer, bloom earlier, and are available in a vast array of colors from red to white, pink to burgundy, and with many variations including doubling of flowers and flecks of color on contrasting backgrounds.

Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket
Glitter applied to Poinsettias at the supermarket

Selecting a Healthy Poinsettia

Poinsettias do great in the home with proper care and will keep their coloration until mid-March. When choosing a healthy plant, look for dark green uniform foliage. But be aware, that lighter colored or mottled bracts typically have lighter green foliage. Reject any plants that have dropping leaves, or ones that have pale green or yellowing foliage.

Jingle Bells Poinsettia-the actual flower is in the center of the bracts
Jingle Bells Poinsettia-the actual flower is in the center of the bracts
Visions of Grandeur Poinsettia with Orchids
Visions of Grandeur Poinsettia with Orchids

When purchasing, make sure that the plants are well wrapped or sleeved before transporting, as low temperatures, even for short periods, can damage the plant.

Sleeved poinsettias
Sleeved poinsettias

Care

Poinsettias thrive in indirect, natural daylight- at least 6 hours a day. Do not place them in direct sunlight, as this may fade the bract olor. For longer bloom, keep in temperatures of 65 degrees to 70. Keep the soil moist, and water when the soil feels dry to the touch. Do not allow the plants to sit in standing water. If your plant comes in a foil wrapper, remove this so the pot can drain properly or puncture so that the wrapper can drain. Fertilizer is not necessary while blooming.

  • Keep in indirect, natural daylight

  • Water when soil is dry to the touch

  • Keep in temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees

  • Make sure the pot drains

  • Fertilization is not necessary

A white double poinsettia
A white double poinsettia

Reflowering-Tough but not Impossible 

It is possible to get your poinsettia to “reflower” next year, but you need to follow strict requirements for light, temperature, and fertilization. Following all these rules is way too much trouble for me, so I consider this plant a “throwaway”. Poinsettias are very inexpensive and I leave the growing of them to experts who have the right equipment to make this happen. If you really want to get your poinsettia to bloom again, go to  http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07412.html for detailed instructions.

Peach Poinsettia
Peach Poinsettia
Monet Poinsettia
Monet Poinsettia

Poisonous??

Contrary to popular opinion, Poinsettias are not poisonous, but neither are they edible. There was a study done that determined that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500 leaves to get really sick! And the leaves supposedly taste awful. The Poinsettia plant is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family of plants, which includes the rubber tree, where natural latex comes from. So, If you are allergic to latex, and ingest this plant, you may have some degree of discomfort, but not fatal. Likewise, if you handle the plant, you could develop a rash. Poinsettias are not harmful to pets either, unless they ingest leaves or bracts in very large quantities. Cats who chew on the leaves may salivate and can vomit if the leaves are swallowed, but it will not kill them.

Decorating With Poinsettias

Rather than scattering Poinsettias around the house, try grouping them together for bigger impact. I also like to place Poinsettias in baskets along with other plants, pods, and cones, to add interest.

Decorating with Poinsettias
Decorating with Poinsettias
Use your poinsettias in groups
Group your Poinsettias for bigger impact

As cut flowers, Poinsettias are great, but you rarely see them used this way. The plants are so inexpensive, that I don’t feel guilty buying one, and cutting the flowers off for arrangements. You can get an entirely different look by using them as cut flowers and they last a long time in a vase, over a week!

Poinsettias used as a cut flower
Poinsettias used as a cut flower

 

8 Replies to “Poinsettia – History and Legends”

  1. I’m glad you clarified that Poinsettias are not poisonous. A lot of innocent plants get a bad reputation due to misinformation, and I’m sure many parents and pet owners have spent agonizing nights in the ER after their little ones nibbled a few leaves. Lots of good info in this post. Thank you.

  2. Claire, as usual I enjoyed all the history and information about poinsettias. Some of it I even knew, imagine that? Thanks for your educational post and beautiful pictures. A very Merry Christmas to you.

  3. I’ve been told that poinsettias don’t do well as cut flowers, that they wilt almost immediately and harm other plants in the arrangement. I’ve also read that this can be prevented by burning the cut stem to close off the end. Never having tried either, I’m curious about your experience.

  4. What wonderful, helpful insights into caring for Poinsettias, Claire! Such fun to read about their history, too. I’m intrigued to try them as cut flowers, too. Heartfelt thanks for the wonderful inspiration you share, as always! Merry Christmas! ♡

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