Sunday, December 10, 2023

Poinsettia: A Sub-Tropical Plant That’s A Christmas Tradition 

Illustration of a poinsettia

Poinsettias are among the most popular potted flowering or foliage plants of the Christmas Season. They have been for decades. According to the 2020 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Floriculture Report; the most recent statistics available); the wholesale value of U.S. grown poinsettias, that year, was $157-million. At the retail level, by most estimates, poinsettias contribute more than $250-million to the U.S. economy.

Paul Ecke Ranch 

Long-recognized as the largest and most successful poinsettia breeder in the world, Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California was founded in 1924, by German immigrant entrepreneurs who moved to the U.S. in 1902. For three generations, the Ecke family grew and sold poinsettias; first as cut flowers and field-grown landscape and mother plants and, eventually, as greenhouse-grown stock-plants. They moved their stock-production facility to Guatemala during the 1990s and, in 2012, sold the business and the name. The leadership team stayed on.

The Most Beautiful Euphorbia 

Poinsettias; Euphorbia pulcherrima (literally the most beautiful Euphorbia); are native to the sub-tropical forests of Mexico and Central America. In their natural environment, they’re flowering shrubs that often grow eight- to ten-feet tall. Originally red, newer varieties (more than 100 are grown today) are white, pink, yellow, orange, even multi-colored. Some have curled bracts (the beautifully colored leaves that are often mistaken for flowers). Others sport variegated leaves. All belong to the euphorbia family, a group of about 3,000 plants distinguished by their milky white sap.

It’s widely believed that poinsettias were prized by the ancient Aztecs who called them ‘cuetlaxochitle’ and viewed them as a symbol of purity.

Close up image of a poinsettia

Poinsettia bracts are actually specialized leaves, which change color, depending on light exposure; a process called photoperiodism. The flowers are the tiny yellow blooms at the center of the cluster of colorful bracts. Photo Credit: University of Minnesota Extension.

A Christmas Eve Miracle 

It’s said that Poinsettias became associated with the celebration of Christmas, following a Christmas Eve miracle.

Mexican legend has it that a young servant girl came to Christmas Eve mass with a bouquet of weeds that she’d gathered on her way to church. She entered the chapel and saw that many precious gifts had been placed before the altar; flawless jewelry crafted from the finest silver and gold, magnificent food, and luxurious clothing. She approached the altar to place her humble gift among the others, hoping only that it would be acceptable. And as she knelt down, her bouquet of wildflowers burst into brilliant red blooms.

Word of the miracle traveled quickly from village to village, and was passed down from generation to generation. The bright red flowers became known as Flores de Noche Buena; Flowers of the Holy Night. And today, poinsettias are commonly called Flores de Noche Buena throughout Central America. They bloom each year during the Christmas season and the bracts are said to represent the Star of Bethlehem.


In Memory 

Poinsettias were first used in nativity processions by 17th century Franciscan priests. And today, churches of all denominations continue to display them during Advent. They serve as a visible reminder of Jesus’ birth and death and the meaning behind those events. The shape of the leaves symbolizes the star of Bethlehem. The red bracts are a reminder of the blood shed during Jesus’ crucifixion. And the bracts of white poinsettias are said represent Jesus’ purity.

Poinsettias are also used in remembrance of others.


Joel Roberts Poinsett 

The poinsettia was given its name by historian and horticulturist William Prescott, in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as America’s first minister (or ambassador) to Mexico, from 1825 to 1829. Poinsett, who had a penchant for botany, is credited with bringing the American elm (and Freemasonry) to Mexico; and the poinsettia, along with certain varieties of red and yellow mimosas, the Mexican rose, and a hibiscus that can change from white to pink in a day, to this country. In recognition of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s many accomplishments, December 12, the date of his death in 1851, was declared National Poinsettia Day, by an Act of Congress.

Joel Roberts Poinsett

Joel Roberts Poinsett by Charles Fenderich; Lithograph on paper, 1838.
Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery; Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Library of Congress.

Are Poinsettias Poisonous? 

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. Studies conducted in cooperation with the Society of American Florists at Ohio State University found no toxicity to humans or pets, even at ingestion levels far exceeding those likely to occur in homes. They’re not meant to be eaten however, and some people may experience an allergic reaction to them. Therefore, it’s best to keep them beyond the reach of toddlers and away from inquisitive pets.

In 1992, poinsettias were added to a USDA list of houseplants most-helpful in removing pollutants from indoor air, after a two-year study conducted by NASA scientists concluded that poinsettia plants remove formaldehyde pollution from indoor environments. Formaldehyde is found in building materials, carpeting, furniture, paper goods, and even some clothing.

People hold poinsettias that have been grown

Growing Poinsettias at Cornell University. Photo Credit: Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS.)

Poinsettia Care and Watering

Holiday poinsettias do best in bright, indirect sunlight at comfortable temperatures (65°-75°F). They don’t fare well when subjected to cold drafts or dry heat.

If the pot is wrapped in foil, as most are, it’s best to remove the foil and place the plant in a plant-saucer, instead. The foil can hold excess water. And you don’t want your plants sitting in standing water, which can trigger root rot; perhaps, the most-common problem associated with poinsettias.

Water your poinsettia well; preferably at the sink. And allow the soil to drain completely. Water only when the surface of the soil has almost, but not completely, dried out.

As they lose their bracts, poinsettias also lose their aesthetic appeal. Most folks simply add them to the compost pile, but with proper care (and a bit of luck), poinsettias can be saved and made to bloom again the following year.

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, served as an Extension Horticulture Specialist for 35 years, until his retirement in 2016, during which time he developed an easy-to-follow poinsettia care calendar. It was published in the White River Valley Herald, in 2012, and can still be found online, here.

Getting a poinsettia to re-bloom is not an easy task, however. It requires, among other things, excluding light from the plant while keeping the plant healthy. Don’t be discouraged if you’re unsuccessful.

Merry Christmas!

Photo at top: Taxonomic Illustration of the Poinsettia. Photo Credit: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine v. 63; 1836.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

One Response

  1. Susan Wilder says:

    Thank you Richard for this article about Pointsettias. The winter of 2022 I purchased 5 poinsettia plants and nursed them through the spring, summer and fall. Only one survived my nursing skills. I don’t know why or what I did, but it’s healthy and has many leaves, some are even light red in color, … well … three are. 🙂

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