Of all the symbols, sights and traditions of Christmas, perhaps the poinsettia is the one most taken for granted. It’s cheery red leaves (not petals, we’ll get to that in a minute) adds festive touches to homes, churches and businesses every holiday season, making it the most popular holiday plant.
Those bright red “flowers” on the poinsettia plant are actually leaves and not its flowers. The flowers are actually the yellow clustered buds in the center of the plant. The colored leafy parts are called bracts which are modified leaves that turn color in response to the plant’s forming flowers. Once the flowers are gone, the leaf bracts fall off. Eventually, even the green ones drop.
The poinsettia is a light sensitive plant. When you deprive the plant of light in its full leafing stage, the only chlorophyll used to turn the leaves green cannot be produced. As a result of this total darkness and lack of light, the only color that will be produced is red. This is called photoperiodism.
Red is the most popular color with pink and white trailing close behind. To date there are more than 100 varieties including salmon, apricot, yellow, cream and white. Several colors are blended together to produce speckled and marbled varieties. Homeowners and businesses are experimenting with these un-traditional colors to add a personal touch to different decors. The only color that is not produced, but rather is designer-created is blue.
Every state grows poinsettias commercially. California is the top producer with over 6 million pots grown annually. North Carolina comes in second at 4.4 million, then Texas with 3.7 million with Florida and Ohio following them.
That’s a lot of poinsettias, but then, folks buy a lot each holiday season. Approximately 34 million are sold each year which is about 25% of sales of all flowering plants. That earns them the distinction of being the highest selling potted flowering plant with sales at $144 million. Easter lilies are second and bring sellers $22 million each year.
How the Poinsettia Got Its Name
Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico. They naturally bloom in December and they have been used there to decorate churches for centuries. From the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Aztecs used the leaves to dye fabric for clothing and the plants were cultivated for that purpose as well as for using the sap as medicine. Red was considered a symbol of purity, so the plants became a popular part of religious ceremonies. In Mexico and Guatemala, it was referred to as the “Flower of the Holy Night.” Since, it has also been called the “lobster flower” and “flame-leaf flower.”
Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and first Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant that would become known here as the poinsettia to this country. He discovered the plant with the brilliant red leaves growing on the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico in December of 1828. He was so taken with the plant that he sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina.
Even though most botanists dismissed it as a weed, Poinsett kept studying and growing it. The poinsettia became popular despite its short bloom time. In the 1960’s researchers were to successfully breed the plants to bloom more than a few days.
Since the mid-1800’s, December 12 has been observed as National Poinsettia Day in the United States. It honors the man and the plant that he introduced.
Paul Ecke, Jr. is considered the father of the poinsettia industry since his ranch in southern California produced the majority of the poinsettia plants and cuttings bought in the United States and many that are bought worldwide. Initially, they grew tall stems that had to be bent back into a loop to keep them at a desirable height. He figured out how to get them to branch. It’s from this plant and firm that the football bowl game in San Diego gets its name.
Caring for Your Poinsettia
The big question surrounding poinsettias is how to get them to rebloom each Christmas season. With just a little work starting after Christmas you can help them live to see another holiday. They like temperatures to be between 65* and 75* and lots of direct sunlight which means a southern, eastern or western window. Keep the soil moist while they are still in bloom. When it feels dry to the touch, re-water but don’ let them set in water.
Spring is when you want to get snippy. Allow the plants to get a little drier and in May cut about 4 inches from each stem to ensure a lush, full plant next winter. Start fertilizing in the spring when the soil is moist so as not to burn the roots.
In June move them outside where there is plenty of sunshine. They are a little finicky and don’t like the intense hot sun, but rather, they prefer morning sun in partial shade. Be vigilant about insects and if the temperature drops below 65*, be sure and take them inside.
October is when the real work starts because that is when they need daylight for no more than 10 hours per day. Put them in a dark closet or room with no light at any time, not even cracking the door for a moment. Do this from 5 PM until 7 AM daily for eight to ten weeks. Don’t forget to bring them back into the daylight every day.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Depending on if you want the challenge or not, just remember that new and superior plants are available each year
A few fun facts about the “Christmas flower” are:
- In the wild or tropical climates, poinsettias can reach a height of 12 feet with leaves measuring 6 to 8 inches across. They are actually considered a small, tropical tree.
- They have had to overcome a bad reputation as being a poisonous plant. They have been cleared by the National Poison Center in Atlanta, GA and the American Medical Association. Even so, they are not meant to be eaten because they can cause stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children may choke on the fibrous parts.
- The best way to prolong their life is to keep them out of hot or cold drafts and to keep them moist. Once the leaves wilt too far, it is too late for them.
- Many make the mistake of not protecting them from the wind after purchasing them. They are highly sensitive to cold temperatures and even a few minutes of exposure to temperatures 50* and colder will cause them to wilt.
In their humble way, poinsettias bring color and joy to the Christmas season; it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. If treated right, they are a hardy plant that will give you joy for many seasons if you put forth the effort. As it has been said, “If cared for properly, they will usually outlast the desire to keep them!”