A Nineteenth Century American Immigrant
Poinsettias are native to Mexico, where they grow wild, and were first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, amateur botanist and first ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett brought some cuttings to his plantation in Greenwood, South Carolina. The rest is history. Today, National Poinsettia Day, Dec. 12, commemorates Poinsett and the plant he made famous on the anniversary of his death in 1851.
A Charming Holiday Legend
The legend of the poinsettia dates back to a Christmas Eve centuries ago, when a little girl named Pepita had no gift to present to the Christ child. On her way to the church she gathered up weeds along the road. Then, a miracle unfolded. As she approached the alter, the weeds bloomed into vibrant flowers -- Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night.
The Aztecs called the poinsettia Cuetlaxochitl. They made a reddish purple dye from the bracts. In Chile and Peru, the poinsettia is known as the Crown of the Andes. Poinsettias have also been referred to as the Flame Leaf Flower. In nature, they're a perennial flowering shrub that can grow up to ten feet in height.
Today, poinsettias range in color from white to pink to traditional red, with shades of peach and yellow in between, with more than 100 varieties available. Newer varieties boast marbled, flecked, and even wrinkled bracts (the colored portion of the plant). They're grown in all fifty states, from tiny plantings, the vast majority of which originate from the Paul Ecke Ranch in California.
Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
Some mistakenly believe poinsettias are poisonous. But, researchers at Ohio State University have proved the poinsettia to be non-toxic to both humans and pets. In fact, out of 22,793 reported poinsettia exposures studied by Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, there was no toxicity significance found. Even pet lovers need not ban the poinsettia from their homes. Keeping the plant out of reach of pets is a good idea, however, to avoid stomach upset from the fibrous tissues, especially among feline friends. Like most decorative blooming plants, the poinsettia is not meant to be eaten and can certainly cause discomfort if ingested.
Selecting the Perfect Poinsettia Plant
Poinsettias range in price from under $10 to over $100, based on size, variety, shape, quality, and decorative trim. When selecting poinsettias, look for plants with thoroughly colored and expanded bracts, plentiful green foliage, strong stems, and no signs of wilting. Care and handling is easy. Poinsettias like indirect sunlight, room temperatures, and light to moderate soil moisture. Over watering and excessive temperatures are the most common causes of any problems. Simply avoid cold drafts, excessive heat, or soggy soil.
With a little care, poinsettias last through Christmas and beyond, making them a terrific value, as well as a popular gift and favorite holiday decoration.