In the Garden:
The tradition of poinsettias at Christmas dates back to 17th-century Mexico where Franciscan priests used them in nativity processions.
Poinsettias take their name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the man credited with introducing this showy plant to United States consumers. How did this tropical plant become such an important symbol of the winter holidays, right next to boughs of holly and Frosty the Snowman?
Native to Mexico, poinsettias were called "cuetlaxochitl" by the Aztecs, who admired the plants' beauty during the short days of winter. Although we think of poinsettias as small, indoor plants, in their natural habitat they grow into woody shrubs up to 10 feet tall. The Aztecs used poinsettias' colorful bracts to make a dye, and the milky sap was used to treat fevers.
Poinsettias may have become associated with Christmas during the 17th century in Taxco, a city located about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City and known for its silver mines. There, Franciscan priests used the colorful plants in their nativity processions, and a tradition was born.
The tradition would likely have remained confined to Mexico, however, were it not for Joel Poinsett. The first US Ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett, a skilled amateur botanist, was so enchanted by the plant's colorful show that he brought back samples and began cultivating the plant in his South Carolina greenhouses in the 1830s. The plant was classified as a new species and called Poinsettia pulcherrima; the genus name honored Poinsett, and the species name translates to "very beautiful." Later, botanists agreed that the plant belongs in the genus Euphorbia (so it's now called Euphorbia pulcherrima) but the common name poinsettia has stuck.
Types and Colors
Although red is still the most popular color, poinsettias are now available in a range of colors, including light and dark pink, white, and yellow. Some have bracts marbled with white, while others have variegated leaves. There are new varieties with curled bracts that resemble large roses, and tree forms with "trunks" topped by foliage and colored bracts.
Look for poinsettias with brightly colored bracts and tight yellow flower clusters in the center. The presence of dusty yellow pollen means the flowers have opened and the plant won't last as long as a plant with unopened flowers. Avoid plants that show signs of wilting, dried leaf margins, or soggy soil. Carefully examine plants displayed in plastic sleeves, because the sleeves inhibit air flow, which can lead to leaf drop. Although it's fine to sleeve up plants for transport, remove the sleeve as soon as possible.
If temperatures are below 50 degrees F outdoors, be sure to protect your plant while you carry it to the car. Just a few seconds in freezing temperatures will damage the tender foliage. Place the plant in a paper bag and carry it quickly to a warmed-up car. Then get it home as soon as possible, taking the same care when you bring it indoors.
Caring for Your Poinsettia
Remove any decorative wrapping or foil, then place the plant on a waterproof saucer to protect furniture. Poinsettias thrive with bright, indirect light for at least 6 hours per day. Avoid prolonged direct sun. Sheer curtains will diffuse the light from a sunny, south-facing window. Room temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees are fine. Avoid locations where the plant will be subjected to cold drafts (such as near an outside door) or hot, dry air (such as near a heating vent). Water your plant when the soil surface is dry to the touch. However, don't let the soil dry out completely or the plant will wilt. There is no need to fertilize the plant while it's on holiday display.
Poisonous: Fact or Fiction?
Although many people still believe that poinsettias are poisonous if ingested, recent studies show the risk to be minimal. According to the National Capital Poison Center (http://www.poison.org), poinsettias are categorized as non-poisonous, with the caveat that the plant may cause "irritation." (The milky sap can cause a skin rash, so avoid handling plants more than necessary, and wash off any sap from your skin.) The ASPCA echoes this sentiment with regard to pets. Use common sense and keep plants away from small children and pets, but there's no need to banish poinsettias from your home based on rumors of extreme toxicity.
If you purchase poinsettias to decorate your home during the holidays, you are in good company. Poinsettias are the number one flowering potted plant sold in the US, which is especially impressive since almost all of them are sold in the six weeks before Christmas!
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