At Christmas time here in North America, the Poinsettia plant is a common sight almost everywhere you look. Hardware, department and even corner stores, all carry a wide variety of this brightly coloured plant. Then there are plastic replicas, cards, wrapping paper, brooches, earrings and assorted jewellery . Never have I seen one plant so recognized by gardeners and non gardeners alike.
Then, as a gardener, I am embarrassed to say how little I know of this plant except how to care for it. Certainly I know it likes to be evenly moist and likes lots of light, to keep the plant firm and healthy. Then there is the darkening process required to get the lovely colourful flower, which I once successfully did, even if I started so late the pale red petals come out in February, making it a Valentine’s Poinsettia.
Right now, there are two different colour specimens of the Poinsettia plant, in my living room, and even an all green one that is celebrating its one year anniversary at my workplace. Recently when watering that plant, someone asked me where it came from and of course I replied form the cafeteria, where they tired of it in January. Then I began to wonder where this plant originated and I realized I had another plant for my inspiration.
History of Poinsettia Plants
Poinsettia plants, proper name Euphorbia Pulcherrima, which translates to “most beautiful Euphorbia” and is part of the Spurge Family of plants. Largely composed of herbs, this family contains a wide variety of plants including some shrubs, trees and succulents, in tropical areas. I was unable to determine who discovered this plant and when that happened but it is known the Aztecs used it in the 14th-16th Century.
The plant was throughout their habitat region in Central America and tropical regions of Mexico. Record show the plant was part of their daily lives in addition to being beautiful. The sap from the leaves and stems was used to reduce fever and the red coloured leaves found around the flowers, were used as a dye.
Traditional Red Poinsettia
As the 16th century began to draw to a close, legend and fact become mixed. Certainly it is know that the Poinsettia plant, know there as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve, was used in Mexico as part of Christmas tradition . From the 16th century the plant was used in Mexico as part of the Christian Christmas Celebrations and that continued in to the 17th century, with the Spanish Conquest of the area. Then the Franciscan Friars also continued to use it, in celebrations and Spanish botanists began to study it.
Further research reveals that between 1825- 1828, the colourful poinsettia plant was introduced in to the United States from its native growing areas along the Pacifica Coast of Mexico and Central America, by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the United States Minister to Mexico at the time. He sent these plants to President Andrew Jackson for a Christmas display at the White House, where they were named there in his honour. Since then, the plant’s role in Christmas tradition spread throughout the United States and Canada. In Mexico and Guatemala the plant is still referred to as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve.
History records that this brightly coloured plant was shipped to Egypt around 1860 and that it is still cultivated there to this day. In this area of the world the plant is called “Bent El Consul”, “the consul’s daughter”, referring to the U.S. ambassador Joel Poinsett. Perhaps the strangest part of the history of this plant is the legend that follows it.
Legends told over the years do vary, as word of mouth is not the most reliable of ways to record history, but there are some constants that come through each telling of this plant’s legend. During the 16th century the tale records that two small, children, from a very poor family watched all manner of Christmas celebrations in the village. One of these ceremonies was the setting up of a manger scene in front of the church.
After the manger was set up people came with gifts to place before the crèche. With nothing to give, these two children decided to pick plants for along the roadside to decorate the crib for Baby Jesus. The children placed these weeds at the manger and before long everyone teased them about their gift, but on Christmas morning the weeds had bloomed in to beautiful red star shaped flowers of the Poinsettia Plant.
The moral of this story was that giving from the heart is the most important and true way to give. Of course one of the Aztec name for this plant was flor que se marchita translated to the flower that wilts) and gardens know that the noche buena or Poinsettia wilts within a few minutes after it is cut, making it unsuitable for bouquets…so if the legend was true, it really was a miracle!
Anatomy of Poinsettia
This family of flowering plants is composed of approximately 300 genera and 7,500 species of flowering plants. One thing this family shares is an unusual flower cluster composed called cyathium , which is a cuplike group of modified leaves enclosing a female flower and several male flowers.
In fact, what we think of as the Poinsettia flower is really the modified leaves called bracts. These bracts serve several purposes. First, they protect the poinsettia’s true flowers, which are the tiny (4-5 mm) greenish-yellow buds in the centre of the bracts. Also the bright red colour attracts pollinating insects to the little flowers.
tiny yellow flowers
In addition to the attraction we have to the bright red colours of this plant, most people are also aware of the misconception that the sap of this plant is poison. While the plant does have a thick milky sap, or latex, that is known to be a skin irritant, studies have shown that their toxicity is greatly exaggerated!
Eating or ingesting any part of a Poinsettia Plant will cause digestive problems of cramps, nausea with diarrhea, especially in serious cases. One article I read said in dogs the sap irritates mouth and stomach. Even poison control centre in the United States determined a small child would have to eat over 500 leaves before it would become toxic.
A general precaution, with Poinsettia’s and all plants, is to keep them out of easy reach by pets and children alike.
Poinsettias require little care to thrive through the Holiday season. Water them when the soil feels dry to the touch, but do not over water or the leaves, both green and red, will turn yellow and fall off.
The plant likes lots of direct sunlight, as they did come from a tropical area, it makes sense. If the Poinsettia is part of a scene or display that is not close to a window, then moving it occasionally to a bright window for even a few hours, will help the bracs keep their bright red colour.
Regular house temperatures are tine for this plant but be aware it is sensitive to cold drafts and being too close to cold windows.
After season Care
Many people discard this plant after the Christmas season, however many gardeners keep this plant and hope they can force it to recolour in the fall.
Basically keep watering the plant through the spring and then place in a sunny window. If the plant begins to get scraggy, leave a branch intact for food production and trim the other back.
Once the last frost is past, the poinsettia can be planted in the garden. New growth in both cases will be deep green and the size of the plant may get out of control so cutting back will be required. Regular fertilizing with a good general purpose brand is also a good idea.
One the summer is past and the weather begins to cool, the challenge of forcing the Poinsettia plant bloom and bracs, becomes the challenge. Starting Oct 1, the plant needs total darkness from 5 p.m to 8 a.m ( 12-14 hours in total) and still good light during the day. This is required for about 10 weeks until the end of November when you should notice buds forming.
A black plastic bag works well. Put the plant in the bottom and merely pull the bag up and twist tie it closed over the plant. In the morning drop the bag down around the bottom of the plant.
If you have a deep, dark cupboard that the plant can be moved in to that will also work but remember any stray light during this resting period can impact forcing the bloom.