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Poinsettias: Flores de Noche Buena

December 28, 2001|By Keith Mayberry, Imperial County Cooperative Extension adviser

The poinsettia is without a doubt the most popular Christmas flower. The usual color choice is the deep, vibrant red. However, there is a wide array of other colors, including pink, white, marbled, speckled and yellow. The colorful parts of the poinsettia, the bracts, are actually modified leaves. The poinsettia flower is small, green or yellow and situated in the middle of the bracts.

The Aztecs called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitle." During the 14th-16th centuries the sap was used to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought by his followers into what now is Mexico City because poinsettias could not be grown in the high altitude.

William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked to give Euphorbia pulcherrima a new name as it became more popular. At that time Mr. Prescott had just published the book "Conquest of Mexico," in which he detailed Joel Poinsett's discovery of the plant. So, Prescott named the plant the poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett's discovery. Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, being appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. At the time of his appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war. Because of his interest in botany, he introduced the American elm into Mexico. During his stay in Mexico he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a U.S. congressman and as an ambassador, he will always be remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.


One legend tells of two Mexican children who were poor. There was an annual Christmas festival and a manger scene at the local church. The children wanted to give something to the church, so on their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus. The other kids began to tease them for giving such a meager gift. But when the children placed the green leaves around the manger, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals. The villagers were in awe of the beautiful red star-like flowers that adorned the scene. Thus the legend was born of the Flowers of the Holy Night (Flores de Noche Buena).

Poinsettias are traditional Christmas plants that will last through the Christmas season. Choose a plant with dark green foliage. Do not purchase poinsettias with a lot of green around the bract edges. To check out the poinsettia's maturity, look at the true flowers that are located at the base of the colored bracts. If the tiny flowers are green or red-tipped and fresh looking the bloom will "hold" longer than if yellow pollen is covering the flowers. Do not choose plants with fallen or yellowed leaves. And avoid plants that are drooping or wilting as this can be a sign of root rot if the soil is still moist. Do not purchase plants that have been displayed or crowded close together. Crowding can cause premature bract loss. Plants held in plastic or paper sleeves tend to deteriorate quickly.

When you take the poinsettia home, be sure to have it sleeved or covered when outdoor temperatures are below 50 degrees. Ideally poinsettias require daytime temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees and nighttime temperatures around 55 degrees. High temperatures will shorten the plant's life. Move the plant to a cooler room at night, if possible. Keep the soil in the pot moist but do not allow the potting mix to become saturated. Be sure to pour any excess water out of the dish that you put under the pot so it does not wick back into the pot.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not toxic. A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child who ate 500 bracts might have a slight bellyache.

Poinsettias can last for several months indoors with proper care. Some people take the plants out of doors and plant them in the garden. They may grow but quite often it is difficult to get the plants to reflower as you have to keep it in total darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. Commercially the producers take great care to cover the plants at precisely the right time and to provide absolute darkness. Anything less and the plant will be an ordinary, rather unattractive shrub. We recommend you buy a fresh commercial poinsettia instead.

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