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).
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:
Sun and Soil Requirements:
Getting Christmas Poinsettias to Flower the Next Year:
The "Flowers" of Christmas Poinsettia Plants:
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.