The poinsettia: Our favorite yuletime plant

The poinsettia: Our favorite yuletime plant

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

You see it in the florist’s windows, in the supermarket, on cards and cheerful wrapping paper, and as decorations in homes, restaurants, and stores. It is the brilliant and beautiful poinsettia that we have come to associate inseparably with the holiday season. An act of Congress even established Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day, commemorating the day the man who introduced us to this lovely plant died.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolinian, was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. He was a man of many talents and accomplishments: world traveler, member of Congress, Secretary of War, astute botanist, and diplomat.

In 1828, he sent specimens of this exquisite plant home to horticulturists in South Carolina and Philadelphia. From the United States it was sent to the botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then to other regions of the British Isles. Dr. Henry Perrine, the famous naturalist, collaborated with Poinsett to publicize this unusual but neglected beauty.

The poinsettia is a member of the Euphorbiacae, or spurge family, which includes such plants as the castor and croton oil species and the cassava, the food yielding rootstock, which is the source of tapioca. In 1836, the introduced plant was given the scientific name of Poinsettia pulcherrima in honor of Joel Poinsett. Though it is not often used, another name for the poinsettia is the Mexican flame leaf.

The actual flowers of the plant are yellow, quite small, and rather insignificant. It is the large, bright red flower bracts that give the plant its striking beauty. Though horticulturists have produced white, pink, and mixed poinsettias in the greenhouse, the original bright red plant is by far the more popular.

The vast majorities of these plants on the market are grown commercially in greenhouses and are small. However, in Southern California and in some areas along the Gulf of Mexico, the poinsettia grows outside and may attain a height of 10 feet or more.

Despite being a winter bloomer, it requires a careful simulation of its native environment in order to thrive. The potted houseplant must be protected from cold drafts of air and maintained at a temperature of about 70 degrees during the day and not less than 55-60 degrees at night.

When watering your potted plant, lukewarm water should be used to keep the soil moist but not saturated. Water must not stand in the dish under the flowerpot. As poinsettias are adapted to life in a shady, jungle-like environment, they should be protected from direct rays of the sun.

As the holiday season approaches each year, an “Old Wives’ Tale” about poinsettias being poisonous usually circulates in the print medium. Research done many years ago at the Ohio State University established that no part of the poinsettia plant was toxic to laboratory animals, even when they were fed massive doses of various parts of the plant. However, like many other plants, poinsettias can cause problems with the human digestive tract if children eat large quantities of various parts of the plant (recall, the plants from which castor and croton oil is obtained are close relatives). The Texas State Poison Center recommends milk or ice cream for treating most mild reactions resulting from someone stuffing him or herself with poinsettia.

POISONDEX, an information resource used by the majority of the some 500 poison centers in the U.S., says that a 50-pound child would have to eat one and a quarter pounds (500-600 leaves) of a poinsettia before experiencing any difficulty.

Let’s all have a beautiful poinsettia in the house this holiday season.

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