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The December Flower

They are ubiquitous this time of year.  We see them at the grocery, at the big box store, at the nursery and florist, decorating churches, homes, and businesses.  They are Euphorbia pulcherimma, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”.  They are, of course, the lovely poinsettia.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, first U. S. Minister (before we called them ambassadors) to Mexico, discovered a beautiful winter-blooming plant during a visit to Taxco del Alarcon in southern Mexico.  An avid amateur botanist, he sent samples to his Greenville, South Carolina greenhouses where he propagated them and shared them with friends.  One of these friends was the famous John Bartram of Philadelphia, who gave samples to Robert Buist, a nurseryman.  Buist may have been the first to sell the plants under the botanical name “Euphorbia pulcherimma”, but by 1836 they were generally known as poinsettias.

Mrs. Blanchard Keister impressed on her fifth-grade students that the correct pronunciation of “poinsettia” requires four syllables (poyn-set-ee-ah) rather than the commonly-heard three.  All our dictionaries back her up.

The Aztecs called the poinsettia "cuetlaxochitl" or "star flower."  In Spanish, poinsettias are called "flor de pascuas" or "the Passover Flower."  Some other common names include the Christmas Star, Crown of the Andes and Mexican flame leaf.


The Mexicans have a folktale about the origin of this pretty plant, which Tomie DePaola retells in “The Legend of the Poinsettia”.  Lucida, a poor Mexican child, helps her mother weave a blanket for baby Jesus. When she tangles the yarn and spoils the blanket, she despairs of having her gift ready in time for the Christmas procession. But she gathers an armful of weeds to place around the manger.  Her prayers bring about a miracle transforming the lowly weeds into flaming red stars and “la Flor de Nochebuena” -- the Flower of the Holy Night – becomes a beautiful part of Christmas. Lucida learns that it is the act of giving that demonstrates true love, and not the value of the gift.

From old legend to modern reality, the poinsettia is a solid Christmas tradition. Millions of plants are sold annually to decorate and account for 85% of potted plant sales amounting to $220 million.


Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. But more than half a century after Poinsett's death, the story began circulating that a toddler in Hawaii died after eating a few leaves from a poinsettia, and the plant's poisonous reputation was born. In spite of several studies, including an extensive test done in 1971 at Ohio State University which indicated the sap from 500 bracts might cause a 50-pound child nothing more than an upset stomach, half of all Americans still think the holiday symbols are poisonous.

Several Christmas season plants are toxic, including mistletoe, ivy leaves, holly berries, and all parts of the Jerusalem or Christmas cherry, particularly leaves and berries. Even Christmas trees can cause respiratory problems for people with certain allergies.  The only potential problem that may occur with poinsettias is an allergy to the white milky substance that oozes from a broken leaf, for people with latex allergies.


In their natural environment, poinsettias are red and can grow to heights of 15 feet.  They are used in the landscape as small trees, and sometimes form a graceful arbor framing house entrances.  In the nursery business, they are no longer just red. Hybridizers and growers have developed pink, white, orange and even blue ones, single ones and double ones.
Growers now are producing poinsettias in which the colorful bracts last for months. It is not unusual for a homeowner to have a poinsettia bursting with bloom until late March.

The trick to making them last is to keep the plant out of drafts, in a cool place, and to keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Do not fertilize a plant with colorful leaves.

Opinions vary about whether it is worth the effort to preserve a poinsettia beyond leaf drop.  Because those sold for holiday purchase are grown from cuttings which require fussy care to achieve timed blooming, it is difficult to reproduce conditions necessary to repeat their beautiful performance and they never look as good the next year.

On the other hand, gardeners cannot resist giving them at least one try just to see if they might be successful.  So here is what to do:


Always carefully wrap a poinsettia, because exposure to cold for even a few minutes can damage it.  Place the plant in indirect light for six hours a day, but avoid allowing the plant to touch cold windows.  Don't expose the plant to areas hit by drafts.   Maintain a daytime temperature of 60 to 70 degrees and 55 degrees at night.

Poke holes in the foil to ensure proper drainage into a saucer, and check the soil daily. Water in the kitchen sink when soil is dry.  After the holiday season, add houseplant fertilizer once a month, but not when the plant is still in bloom.

Cut back your plant in March or April to about 8 inches and fertilize with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer. You can move the plant outdoors in spring and summer. Repot the plant in a peat-based potting soil and continue watering and fertilizing every month or so. Plants will try to get leggy, so pinch back in the summer, but no later than September 1 or you may affect flowers.

Poinsettias are photosensitive plants and require six to eight hours of sunlight in October, November and December to set flowers. Keep in mind that stray light sources will affect the growing period. Improper night temperatures will also delay flowering, and should be between 60 and 70 degrees.

Best wishes for a merry Christmas.  For more about poinsettias or Joel Poinsett, visit us at or call 988-2541.

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