What You Don't Know About Poinsettias Won't Kill You

Both Christmas and National Poinsettia Day (December 12) are coming up soon, which brings up some interesting questions you may never have considered before. For example, why is a flower indigenous to Mexico commonly recognized as an international symbol of Christmas? Or why is it so darn hard to keep your poinsettias alive and blooming once you’ve bought them at the store? You may have never thought too hard about the most popular potted plant in America, but here's your chance to learn about these fascinating blossoms.

Those Flowers, They Aren’t Really Flowers

Most people consider the bright red (or occasionally pale green, white, orange, cream, pink or marbled) areas on the plants to be the blooms, but in reality, these are just groupings of colored leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are those tiny little buds inside of the bracts (seen above) and these are called cyathias. While we’re at it, most people think of poinsettias as red flowers, but as mentioned above, they can come in all the colors listed above. Still, over 74% of Americans prefer their poinsettias red, while 8% prefer white and 6% prefer pink. Image Via Martin Heigan [Flickr]

What’s In A Name?

In Aztec times though, it was called “Cuetlaxochitl,” which means skin flower. In Chile and the Andes, it was known as the “Crown of the Andes.” According to legend, King Montezuma would have the flowers carried up to Mexico City because the flowers would not grow in such a high altitude. Later on, German botanist Wilenow gave the plant its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning "very beautiful." Soon after, it was introduced into the U.S. in 1828 by the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. Years later, historian and horticulturalist William Prescott was asked to give the plant a new name. Having just written a book about Mexican history, he recalled Poinsett’s role in bringing the flowers into America. Prescott named the plant in Poinsett's honor. In modern Egypt, they still call the plant “Bent El Consul,” meaning “the consul’s daughter” after Mr. Poinsett. In Spain, the flower is known as “flor de Pascua” or Easter flower. In Mexico and Guatemala, it is commonly called “Noche Buena” or “Christmas’ Eve.”

The Tropical Christmas Plant?

Speaking of Christmas, it seems rather strange that these New World plants would become synonymous with a holiday celebrating the birth of a Middle Eastern carpenter. Still, they are in fact the most popular holiday plant around, representing over 85% of all potted plant sales in the holiday season. The reasons go all the way back to the 16th century, where a Mexican legend began spreading about a young girl who couldn’t afford a gift for Jesus' birthday. She was said to be told by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Soon after, crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias. Starting in the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico began to include the plants in the Christmas celebrations. Image Via Southern Pixel [Flickr]

Genetics, Marketing and Monopolies

Fast forward into America during the sixties and this Mexican tradition  started spreading across the U.S. thanks to Paul Ecke Jr. This young man was a marketing genius who started sending television networks free poinsettias for display on air between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He also appeared on programs like "The Tonight Show" and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to help promote the plant. His efforts were highly successful and largely responsible for the association of poinsettias with Christmas outside of Mexico. Lest you think Paul was simply an overly enthusiastic supporter of the flower, his intentions were mostly monetary. Paul was an heir of the Ecke family, owners of a virtual monopoly on our modern day idea of poinsettia flowers. His German immigrant grandfather, Albert Ecke, started selling the plants from street stands after 1900. Paul Ecke the first, Albert’s son, developed a grafting method that resulted in a fuller, more compact plant than the wild plants (seen to the left). He additionally discovered a phytoplasma infection to the plant would induce it to produce far more flowers than its natural, weed-like cousin. The family held the secret to these techniques up until the 1990’s, giving them a monopoly on the poinsettia market up to that point. In the nineties, a researcher discovered the Ecke’s method and published it, allowing for competitors to the company. These days, many companies in Latin America sell the flowers all over the world, but the Ecke’s family (who now exclusively uses farms outside the U.S.) still controls about 50% of the worldwide market. Image Via Jiggs Images [Flickr]

Myths About Poison

In 1919, a completely unfounded story began to circulate that a two year-old child died after she ate a poinsettia leaf. Researchers who looked into the story found that it is all hearsay and about as truthful as the razors in candy apple stories that circulate around Halloween. Ohio State University researchers found that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500 bracts to even get a sore tummy. Despite this, the rumor continues to circulate that poinsettias are poisonous and should not be kept around pets or children. On the other hand, the sap from poinsettias can cause temporary blindness when introduced directly in the eye and some people with latex allergies will have an allergic reaction to the plants. So the only people who need to be wary of the plants are those that have a latex allergy or anyone with a habit of putting things in their eyes for no reason. Image Via distopiandreamgirl [Flickr]

Why Are They So Hard to Grow?

If you’ve ever bought poinsettias during the holiday season, you may have noticed just how finicky these beautiful plants can be. Even if you live in an area with a warmer climate that is suitable for the tropical buds, you still may not be able to get your plants to reflower the way they did when you bought them. The reason for this is encoded in the plant’s genes. In order to produce the vibrant, thick blooms the plant is known for, the plant needs to have two months of completely dark nights in the autumn. Even minor exposure to houselights can hamper flower production. If you really want your plants to reflower, you need to cover the plant with a light-proof bag between 5 pm and 8 am starting early October and stopping when the bracts begin to show colors --usually around mid-December. To make gardening the plant even more complex, you also have to be sure the nighttime temperatures are below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but also not too cold. Failure to keep the plant in the right temperature can also result in decay or lack of flowers. Personally, I love gardening and I love poinsettias, but the effort involved with trying to keep them reflowering is just way too much for me. Have any of you had better luck? Image Via Property#1 [Flickr] Source #1, #2

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It's not an "international" symbol of Christmas at all. Classic American universalising of something that is peculiar only to themselves. Half the world is in Summer at Christmas so poinsettias wouldn't be flowering anyway.
This reminds me of Americans asking me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia! Why on earth would we?
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I bought a Poinsettia from a hospital benefit holiday craft show in NJ. The seller told me that field grown plants will last, whereas hothouse grown will not. I didn't believe him, but that plant lived on the kitchen window sill for years, with no special treatment.
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The one outside our front door blooms regularly and has to be hacked back every year or it overruns the porch. We're north of San Diego by thirty miles or so, and that wall faces northeast; the thing must coincidentally get just the right conditions.
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