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Poinsettia Plants - The Christmas "Flowers" That Are Not Really Flowers

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Without their

Without its Yuletide colors, Euphorbia pulcherrima is a rather ordinary-looking plant.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Christmas Poinsettias:

Plant taxonomy classifies Christmas poinsettias as Euphorbia pulcherrima, literally, "the most beautiful Euphorbia" (Euphorbia is not only a genus name, but also the name of a large plant family).

If Euphorbia pulcherrima is the scientific name for these plants, one may well ask how their common name (which looks like it should be a scientific name!) is derived. Well, the common name derives from the fact that Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the first specimens to North America (1828).

Plant Type:

Euphorbia pulcherrima is a sub-tropical plant, native to Mexico. There, it is a deciduous flowering shrub, growing up to 10 feet in height. Intolerant of the cold, in the North it is grown almost exclusively indoors. The plants are raised in greenhouses (it's big business), to be sold as potted flowers for the holidays. Enormously popular holiday gifts, they are treated by most of their recipients as houseplants.

The salient point about their status as sub-tropical plants is that, when transporting them in cold weather (say, from a florist shop to your home), they need to be wrapped for protection.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones:

Euphorbia pulcherrima can be grown as a perennial in zone 10 and higher (e.g., south Florida).

Characteristics:

When mention is made of poinsettia plants, most people think of the color, red. But the "flowers" also come in white, yellow, pink and in color combinations. The "marbled" type is one of the most fascinating. Available from florists in a variety of sizes, an average height for potted poinsettia plants is perhaps about 2 feet (not counting the container).

Sun and Soil Requirements:

If you want to treat poinsettia plants as annuals, you can grow them outside for a bit of extra greenery. But frankly, they aren't anything special without the colors that nurseries artificially induce them to put on at Christmas (see picture above, and click "More Images" to see the "holiday transformation."). You can move them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Grow them in well-drained soil and in a sunny spot that receives a fair amount of shade in the afternoon. Water needs: moderate to high.

Getting Christmas Poinsettias to Flower the Next Year:

These "are short-day plants," as Marie Iannotti points out. The only reason you can buy them at the florist shop in bloom during the Yuletide season is that greenhouse operators have manipulated their bud set. Flowering is dictated by number of daylight hours available. If you wish to replicate this "forcing" and get your plant to bloom again, you'll need "about 10 weeks with 12 hours or less of sunlight per day." Sound like a lot of work? You bet it is! In other words: getting them to flower again is a real pain -- something best left to greenhouse operators.

The "Flowers" of Christmas Poinsettia Plants:

When laymen speak of the "flowers" on poinsettia plants, what they're actually referring to are petal-like leaves known as "bracts." Euphorbia pulcherrima does have flowers, but these green and yellow flowers are small -- and certainly not a noteworthy feature. The colorful bracts form around (and just below) these inconsequential flowers.

The Myth of Poinsettia Plants Being Poisonous - Are They Harmful?:

Regarding the toxicity of Euphorbia pulcherrima, one could say, "A new myth has grown up in the process of dispelling an old myth." Let me explain:

As many have pointed out, it is a myth that poinsettia plants are deadly poisonous if a child or pet eats the leaves (but that doesn't mean that the leaves should intentionally be eaten, either!). But because this fact is so widely known now, I fear that a new myth has arisen: namely, that no health issues whatsoever surround the annual displaying of poinsettia plants. The fact is, this Christmas icon can be quite harmful to some people; and the harm derives not from eating the leaves but simply from being around poinsettia plants.

Why? Because the milky sap that oozes from the branches can result in contact dermatitis in some people. So unless you like to itch, avoid the sap, in case you're one of those prone to develop this rash. At the very least, be sure not to touch your eyes after touching the sap. The harm some people suffer from being around poinsettia plants is even worse (e.g., difficulty breathing).

A number of people have commented on my blog post regarding latex allergy, sharing personal stories about health problems stemming from exposure to Euphorbia pulcherrima. Tell us if they make you sick.

Spelling and Pronunciation of Christmas Poinsettias:

We can thank the derivation of the plant's name from Ambassador "Poinsett" for the numerous misspellings that abound. People seem intent on spelling the name "poinsetta," for example (dropping the i at the end). Another common misspelling involves inserting an extra t (the fact that "points" is a nickname commonly used in the florist and nursery trades probably does not help matters here). "Poinsetters" is a spelling even more off-base, but it is also more common than one might imagine. Why couldn't this guy have been named, "Smith!"?

Such misspellings have spawned mispronunciations (or is it the other way around?). Dictionaries list poin-SET-ee-uh and poin-SET-uh as acceptable pronunciations. However, both folks in the industry and their customers regularly insert a "T" after the "N," so that the word most often ends up being pronounced, point-SET-uh.

Christmas Poinsettia Legend:

The legend regarding Euphorbia pulcherrima begins long ago with a peasant girl in Mexico, faced with a problem on Holy Night: she lacked the means to contribute a gift in the Christ Child ceremony at the church, as all the other children would be doing. The girl was, however, reassured that, to use a modern expression, "it's the thought that counts."

Taking this advice, she picked some roadside weeds on the way to church to make a bouquet. But when she arrived at the church and it was time for her to present her gift, the bouquet of weeds was transformed into something much more colorful: red Christmas poinsettias! Thus was born an enduring Christmas tradition, as we continue to associate these "flowers" with the holiday season.

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