Poinsettias – Symbols of the Holiday Season

Winter Rose Poinsettias at Longwood Gardens

Winter Rose Poinsettias at Longwood Gardens

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without the poinsettia. And in case you have forgotten your poinsettia facts since last year here’s a refresher on what you need to know about this festive plant.
Whether poinsettias are in the traditional velvety red color or any of the new streaked, spotted or dyed forms of plum, peach, blueberry, orange or cranberry colors, these plants help set the stage for a great holiday celebration.
For all the cheer that poinsettias bring, there are still some people that look upon this festive plant as poison. Stop, let it be said up front — poinsettias are not poisonous! This myth started almost ninety years ago in Hawaii and amazingly still continues to this day. Apparently an Army officer’s two-year-old child died after supposedly eating a poinsettia leaf. The Physician who made the diagnosis later realized he had identified the wrong plant. He had planned to return to the mainland to correct his error when he suddenly died (unrelated to poinsettias) and the story spread and spread. Although it was later determined to be a case of incorrect plant identification, many people still believed that poinsettias are poisonous.
As recently as 1995, sixty-six percent of people surveyed by the Society of American Florists believed that poinsettias were poisonous even though there was a lot of evidence to disprove this myth. Researchers at Ohio State University tested the effects of ingesting high doses of leaves, stems and sap and found the plant non-toxic.
In the United States, the POISINDEX database has extrapolated evidence from experiments done on animals that suggest that a fifty-pound child could eat 500 or more poinsettia leaves with no ill effects. This was the limit of their testing. A survey of United States poison control centers in 1995 resulted in no reports of toxic reactions involving poinsettias. This seems like an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the non-toxic nature of the poinsettia.
Many families with small children still shun this plant because of the advice passed down through the generations from friends or relatives. Perhaps it is because the name “poinsettia” sounds a lot like “poison”. The plant is not entirely harmless, though. Some people develop a rash if the milky sap comes in contact with their skin. On the positive side, poinsettias have been included on a list of plants that clean indoor air.
Even with the myth about poisonous poinsettias, they are a $200 million per year business in the United States. Of the millions of plants sold, red is the most favorite poinsettia color. A whopping seventy-four percent of poinsettias are sold in this traditional holiday color. This figure has actually gone up recently (but is still down from a high of 80%). Trailing at a very distant second is the color white. It is followed by pink, marble and then jingle bells (pink with white splashes).
Poinsettias are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was an avid botanist and also the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in the late 1820’s. Most people believe that Poinsett discovered the poinsettia when travelling on Christmas Day near the Southern Mexico city of Taxco. The bright red plant was believed to be decorating the nativity scene in a church he visited.
In 1828, Ambassador Poinsett exported the bright red holiday plant to his own greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina where they were propagated and distributed to his horticultural friends. The plant steadily gained popularity. Today, over fifty-two million poinsettia plants (of 100 different types) are sold in the United States. This exceeds the annual sales of all other flowering potted plants combined. Poinsettias make a very good landscape plant in frost-free areas and can be used as an interesting cut flower.

Poinsettias on display at Longwood Gardens (2006)

Poinsettias on display at Longwood Gardens (2006)

The poinsettia was first called Euphorbia pulcherrima in the botanical world. It was named by a German taxonomist in 1833. Literally, the botanical name means “the most beautiful Euphorbia.” In Florida this plant grows up to five feet tall and naturally blooms every December. It is hardy to zone 9 and will only grow outside year-round in the most southern regions of the United States.
Interestingly, it is not the poinsettia flower that is so colorful. The flowers are the small yellow “buds” at the very center of the plant. A young plant still has these flowers intact. The famous poinsettia color is really from petal-like bracts that are beneath the flowers. Bracts are modified leaves that are associated with a plant’s flower. The bracts change from green to the brilliant colors in response to temperature and day length.
What does a healthy poinsettia look like? It should have healthy leaves down the stem to the soil. Poinsettias drop their leaves when they have been shocked by a cold draft. A thick, sturdy stem is another sign of a well-grown plant. The bracts should be a deep, rich, intense color that is not greenish or faded. Finally, look under the leaves for white flies. These small insects are a prevalent problem and are attracted to poinsettias (among other plants) like a magnet.
The number one tip to care for poinsettias is to avoid extremes! This includes providing protection when taking your plant home. Once home, keep your plants away from extremes of hot and cold temperatures. The right temperature for a poinsettia is also a comfortable one for humans including a humidity level that is about 30%. Bright, indirect sunlight is best because a strong sun on the bracts could fade their color. When watering, keep the soil moist but not too wet or too dry. Let the soil dry out between watering so that it feels slightly dry to the touch. The newer varieties of poinsettias are much more durable and are far less finicky. Prestige is a deep red poinsettia that is reputed to be the toughest poinsettia offered by North America’s largest poinsettia grower. This one will probably be around long past the holidays.
Christmas at Longwood Gardens (2006)What’s available besides red, white and pink poinsettias? If you are not a traditional poinsettia lover or want to try a different color this year, look for cream (plus rose and pink colors), peach, striped, marbled, purple, variegated foliage, peppermint twist, eggnog and winter rose (twisted bracts now in marble, pink, deep pink and dark red colors) or spotted (such as Shimmer or Jingle Bells) plants. New is the Polar Bear poinsettia from the Ecke people who are donating 5% of the net sales revenue to Polar Bear International. The light creamy white color of the poinsettia matches the majestic polar bear. And if you like your poinsettias shockingly non-traditional, try the dyed and glittered blue, orange, purple or pink. The advantage of having non-red poinsettias in the house is that they don’t look quite so out of place at Easter.
What’s new for next year? With growers making plans for next year’s crops, the news is out that your poinsettia future might include Red Glitter (deep red bracts with white streaks and glitter).
December 12th is a special day for poinsettia fanciers. It has been declared National Poinsettia Day. This day is to honor Joel Roberts Poinsett, the man who started it all. Decorate your house with color this holiday season and bring home poinsettias.
My favorite? I have long had a fondness for unusual natural colorations of poinsettias and my current favorite is Monet Twilight. It is a unique multi-colored poinsettia with cream, rose and pink bracts.

Enjoy the season! Best wishes to all.

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