Just last week I looked at the calendar and surprised at just how quickly Christmas was
approaching, so I took a bit of time and reviewed the information on our own website regarding Poinsettias. In doing so I thought that a few facts about everyone’s favorite Christmas plant would be right at home on this blog. After all, many of us will probably purchase one of these traditional Christmas plants over the next month or so, or maybe receive one as a gift. Yes, these plants make great Christmas gifts and with a little care can remain in someones home long after the season.
Next to the Christmas tree, poinsettias are one of the most popular plants over the Christmas season, recognizable by virtually everyone and a tradition for many. In fact in the U.S the poinsettia outsells all other potted plants combined and December 12th is National Poinsettia Day! Every December this plant can be seen in homes, businesses, churches, and virtually anywhere the holiday is celebrated.
So, why poinsettias and Christmas?
A brief history…
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are originally native to an area known as Taxco del Alarcon located in Southern Mexico. The plant was cultivated by the Aztec Indians who referred to it in their language as Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl=residue, and xochitl=flower) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil. The colourful bracts were used by the Aztecs to make a reddish purple dye and a a fever medicine was derived from the poinsettia’s milky sap (known today as “latex”).
The plant’s association with Christmas appears to have began in 16th century Mexico, where a legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The story relates that the girl was inspired by an angel to gather weeds and place them in front of the church altar. Bright crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias began to be used in Christian rituals. During the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico used the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus
Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States by Joel Robert Poinsett (1799-1851) who served in the South Carolina and U.S. Houses of Representatives and was appointed as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett although having attended medical school had a deep passion for the science of botany. Poinsett had plants sent to his home in South Carolina where he maintained hothouses and he began propagating the poinsettia plants. Later he distributed plants to horticultural friends and botanical gardens. Mr. Poinsett is also known for being instrumental in founding the institution which we know today as the Smithsonian.
The poinsettia has a history with the American public. In the 1830’s, the future Christmas plant’s popularity spread throughout America. The poinsettia’s original scientific name euphorbia pulcherrima, or “very beautiful, ” did not suit the adoring public. “Painted leaf” and “Mexican fire plant” sufficed until the plant was named poinsetta pulcherrima, or “poinsettia”, in honor of Ambassador Poinsett. Congress even deemed December 12 National Poinsettia Day to commemorate the date of Poinsett’s death.
In the 20th century the Ecke family of California has been instrumental in the development of today’s poinsettia which bears an entirely different appearance than those cultivated by the Aztecs or Mr Poinsett. Poinsettias in nature will develop and grow with a somewhat weedy open appearance, the Eckes’ developed a grafting technique to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant.
Initially poinsettias lasted only a few days in the home. All had red bracts. Today’s varieties are more compact, durable, and long-lasting. Red, pink, white, gold, marbled, and variegated varieties are now available.
Poinsettia Trivia and Fun Facts
(This is the stuff I enjoy, and makes great conversation over the festive season)
- Poinsettias ARE NOT Poisonous! – The common and widespread belief that poinsettias are poisonous is a misconception. Ample scientific evidence demonstrating the poinsettia’s safety is well researched and documented. Read More
- The flowers of a poinsettia are the small, cup-like structures called cyathia at the center of the red “petals,” not the red “petals” themselves. These are actually modified leaves called bracts.
- The poinsettia goes by a number of names in different countries.
– In Spain as “Flor de Pascua”, meaning Easter Flower
– In Mexico and Guatemala as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve.
– In both Chile and Peru, the plant is known as “Crown of the Andes”
– In Egypt it is referred to as “Bent El Consul”, “the consul’s daughter”, referring
to the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett.
- In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. This official day has been observed since the mid-1800s. It honors the man and the plant he introduced. Poinsett died Dec.12, 1851.
- Big Spring, Texas is known as the “lighted poinsettia capital”. When the Comanche Trail Festival of Lights first began the dam at the big spring held four huge poinsettias made of construction rebar welded together in the shape of a poinsettia flower, each was made up of 5 leaves. The leaves were decorated with red Christmas lights. The four poinsettia flowers present anyone entering Big Spring from the south with an incredible sight. In succeeding years additional flowers were added to the dam and inside the park until Comanche Trail Park has a total of eleven lighted flowers on the dam and countless flowers inside the park, making Comanche Trail Park the Christmas Poinsettia capital.
- The Ecke family of Encinitas, California, had a virtual monopoly until the 1990’s
on commercially grown poinsettias owing to a technological secret that made it difficult for others to compete. However, in the 1990s, a university researcher discovered the method and published it, opening the door for competitors to flourish. Yet even today The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 80 percent of poinsettias in the United States for the wholesale market and approximately 90% of all the flowering poinsettias in the world originated there.
- Would you believe that last year more than 65 million were sold in the United States? Poinsettias accounted for one-third of sales of all flowering potted plants. In economic terms, that’s $237 million out of a total of $781 million in sales of all flowering potted plants! An even more amazing stat when you consider that the vast percentage of poinsettias are sold within a six (6) week period each year!
- Red is still 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.
- In the wild, the poinsettia can reach heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across.
- Poinsettias are generally priced according to the number of blooms. The more blooms, the more expensive the plant.
According to the University of Illinois, 80% of poinsettias are purchased by women, and 75% of Americans prefer red poinsettias to white.
There over 110 varieties of poinsettia varieties to choose from.
In 1992, the poinsettia was included on the list of houseplants most helpful in removing pollutants from indoor air. So it appears they add more than just colour to a home or office at Christmas
Selecting a Poinsettia
1) Select plants with dense, plentiful foliage all the way to the soil line. An abundance of
rich green foliage is a sign of a good healthy plant. Avoid waterlogged soil, particularly if the plant appears wilted. Such a condition could be a sign of root rot.
2) Choose plants with fully coloured and expanded bracts. Although many mistakenly think that these bracts are the flower petals, the actual flowers are the tiny yellow clusters found at the centre of the bracts (Bracts are simply leaves masquerading as petals). Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges, as this is a sign of a plant having been shipped prior to being allowed to sufficiently mature.
3) Avoid plants displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves, or plants that are tightly crowded in a sales display. Poinsettias need space, and the longer a plant remains sleeved, the more the plant quality will suffer. Crowding plants can reduce air flow and cause premature bract loss or other problems.
4) Generally a plant should be 2 1/2 times taller than the diameter of the container it is potted in. This proportion of plant height and shape relative to container size is the key to an aesthetically pleasing poinsettia.
Care and Handling of Poinsettias
1) Avoid Cool Temperatures – When taking your plant home, always ensure to protect it from chilling winds and temperatures below 50° F. Reinserting the poinsettia into a sleeve or a large, roomy shopping bag will usually provide adequate protection generally for transporting the plant when it is cold and windy. Never leave your poinsettia in an unheated car for any length of time.
2) Watch the water – Root rot from excessive watering is the most common cause of premature poinsettia death. The soil should be allowed to dry completely between watering.
3) Bright Sunlight – Poinsettias love bright sunlight, so a sunny window is the best place to sit your plant. Be certain though, not to get it too close to the window if you live in a cold climate. Since the glass from the window can be very cold, set the plants away from the glass, or if need be, remove the plant to another location after the sun goes down for the day.