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The Avid Gardener: A Primer on Poinsettias

by and on December 19, 2016 5:00 AM

Nothing adds warmth to the December holiday season like the poinsettia plant.

I recall seeing them only in the color red when I was young, but a recent trip to a local store showcased not only the usual deep red or white, but Princettia poinsettias (bubble gum pink with smaller bracts), Fleursettias (bright red poinsettias encircled by white mums), ice crystal poinsettias (muted shades of pink or white) and painted poinsettias (lovely tie-dyed shades of lavender and blue sprayed with glitter). It was truly a poinsettia-lover’s paradise.

There is a wealth of interesting information about the poinsettia. According to the University of Illinois Extension, the plants are actually part of the sprurge family. They are botanically known as euphorbia pulcherrimaLatin for “the most beautiful eurphorbia.”

They were originally grown by the Aztecs in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They called them cuitlaxochitlmeaning “flower that grows in residues or soil,” and they were used to relieve fever and for making dye.

In Mexico and Guatemala, the plant is known as “la flor de la nochebuena,” flower of the holy night, or Christmas Eve. 

There is a tale in which a poor young child could not afford the traditional flowers to place around the church manger on Christmas Eve and was told by an angel to pick weeds by the side of the road. These weeds transformed into poinsettias when they were placed in the manger.

In Mexico, the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that will grow 10 to 15 feet tall and was once thought of as a weed. Here, it is considered a tender tropical plant and is used mainly indoors.

The very showy parts of the plant are not, in fact, flowers but actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The tiny flowers are yellow and are in the center of these colorful bracts.

Many plants in the euphorbiaceae family ooze a milky sap that some people with latex allergies may find causes skin irritation.

Though rumors persist, poinsettias are not poisonous. The most commonly reported problems are upset stomach and vomiting.

The leaves are said to be not very tasty, making it more unlikely that children or pets would be able to eat many. However, leaves can still pose a choking hazard, so it is best to keep the plants out of reach.

One of the most interesting aspects of poinsettias is their unusual name. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), born in Charleston, S.C., was an American physician, politician and amateur botanist born to wealthy parents, according to the website

Poinsett led a fascinating life. After being educated in Connecticut and Europe in languages, law and military affairs, he toured the European continent. That was soon followed by extensive travel in Russia, where Czar Alexander attempted to lure Poinsett into Russian civil or military service.

He then was a “special agent” to Chile and Argentina from 1810 to 1814, and at one point lead a charge at the head of the Chilean cavalry in the Battle of San Carlos, helping secure a victory for Chile against the Spanish Royalists.

Back in the United States, Poinsett won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the Charleston district and served as a special envoy to Mexico. It was there, after visiting an area south of Mexico City, that he saw the unusual plant destined to be named in his honor. He sent samples of it to friends in the United States, where by 1836 it became known as the poinsettia. (There is also a Mexican lizard named for him.)

Another claim to fame is that, in 1840, he was cofounder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and Useful Arts (a predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.).

Today, there are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available, though red still dominates. They contribute more than $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level, and are the top-selling potted plant in both the United States and Canada. 

The father of the poinsettia industry in this country is Paul Ecke Jr., who discovered a technique which causes seedlings to branch and become more full. The Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., grows more than 70 percent of the poinsettias purchased in the United States and 50 percent worldwide. In 2012, the family-owned 100-year-old operation was acquired by the Dutch-based Agribio Group.

There are things to look for when buying a poinsettia. The foliage should be dark green. Avoid foliage that has brown spots, and the colored bracts should not have green around their edges. Don’t buy plants that are drooping, wilting, with fallen or yellowed leaves or that have yellow pollen starting to fall from the flowers that are in the center of the bracts. These are all indications that the plant may be diseased or simply past its prime.

Request that the plant be covered before leaving the store, because temperatures below 50 degrees, even for a few minutes, can damage the leaves.

Be sure to put the plant in the car with you, rather than in the trunk.

Once home, place the plant in a sunny window with temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, away from extreme temperature fluctuations and drafts.

Check the soil daily and water it when it seems dry. If there is foil around the plant, remove it to allow the water to drain rather than pool beneath. It is not necessary to fertilize the plant while it is blooming.

With care, it is possible to get your poinsettia to re-bloom by Dec. 12 of next year (National Poinsettia Day). 


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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