Christmastime is finally here — the time of year we celebrate the birth of Christ. “Joy to the world the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her king!” The beautiful poinsettia is a Christmas plant that is rich in tradition, easy to care for and brightens up any room with holiday spirit.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They are found at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico through Chiapas and eventually Guatemala. They also flourish in the hot, dry forests of Guererro and Oaxaca. In their native setting, they grow as a perennial shrub and can be from 10-15 feet tall.
Poinsettias received their name in the United States in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant to our country in 1828. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He sent cuttings of the plant he discovered, in the Taxco region of Southern Mexico, to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Dec. 12 has been designated as National Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.
This plant is known in Mexico and Guatemala as “La Flor de la Nochebuena” — Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve (always blooming, in the wild, around Christmastime). Interestingly, in Spain the Poinsettia is connected to a different holy celebration. There it is known as “Flor de Pascua” — Easter flower.
Poinsettias are in the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Botanically, they are known as known as Euphorbia pulcherrima. Several plants in this family ooze a milky sap. It might be this very sap that caused people to think that they are poisonous. Poinsettias are not poisonous. A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat between 500 and 600 of these awful-tasting leaves to experience any side effects. Pets, on the other hand, may have a mild reaction of irritation or nausea and should be kept away.
Today there are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias. They come in many colors, not just the traditional red. There are several variations of red, white, pink, burgundy, lavender and both marbled and speckled.
The showy colored parts of Poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The yellow flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen.
Select plants with uniformly green foliage and no lower leaves missing. For the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
Poinsettias need moderately moist soil; water thoroughly whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. However, do not allow them to sit in standing water. If the container is wrapped with foil or festive paper, remove it when watering or make a hole in it for drainage. Discard any collected water in the drainage tray. Ideal temperatures are 60°F to 70°F. They thrive on indirect, natural daylight (at least six hours a day). Avoid direct sunlight, as this may fade the bract color. Remove damaged or diseased leaves.
Interesting tidbit: Paul Ecke Jr. is considered to be “The father of the poinsettia industry.” He discovered a technique which caused seedlings to branch. This technique allowed the Poinsettia industry to flourish. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and about 50% of the Poinsettias sold worldwide. In August 2012, the Ecke Ranch, which was family-owned and operated for nearly 100 years, announced that it had been sold to an international group.
As we fill our churches this December, we might just see a Poinsettia or two. “Let every heart prepare Him room, And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing!”
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)