Poinsettia > The Christmas Flower

Posted On November 9, 2006

Filed under Christmas Poinsettia

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With just a few short weeks until Christmas, it is time to buy the flower we all think of first when it comes to Christmas, the Poinsettia.

Even though we think of it as being the Christmas flower, I imagine that you aren’t aware that it has its own day of the year, Poinsettia Day, that is well over a month prior to Christmas.

The Poinsettia is not only an exceptionally beautiful flower, but an interesting flower that has been changing its coloring away from the traditional red we equate with Christmas. The poinsettia is also, contrary to old tale, an exceptionally safe flower to have in your home at Christmas.

We think of the Poinsettia as the Christmas flower and it growing in florists pots, but the Poinsettia is also called the Mexican flame leaf, Christmas star, lobster flower, Noche Buena, Pascua or Christmas star (Euphorbia pulcherrima), and is known to grow to a height of sixteen feet in Mexico. The Poinsettia’s bracts, which we call “flowers”, are actually large bunches of colored leaves. The flowers themselves are the small yellow flowers in the center of each leaf bunch. Mexican legend says that it resembles the flower of Bethlehem, and they have given it the honor of decorating churches at Christmas time.

Dr. Joel Roberts-Poinsett, the US Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, is credited with bringing the first Poinsettia to the United States. While visiting the city of Taxco, he was struck by the beauty of the brilliant red plants he found blooming in the region during December. He sent some of the plants to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, where they flourished in his greenhouse.

Poinsettias are native to Southern Mexico and Central America, yet are grown worldwide today outdoors and in greenhouses. It is a subtropical plant and must be grown inside in most regions. In the U.S., poinsettias can be found growing in the wild in both Hawaii and Puerto Rico and are often grown as garden flowers in California. Over 70 million plants are sold in this country every year and it is the number one potted plant in sales in this country, though it is only sold for about six weeks at Christmas time.

A Mexican legend claims that poinsettias came to be associated with Christmas when a child, who could not afford a gift to offer to Christ on Christmas Eve, picked some weeds from the side of a road. The child was told that a humble gift, if given in love, would be acceptable in God’s eyes. When he brought his gift into the church, the weeds bloomed into red and green flowers and the congregation felt they had witnessed a Christmas miracle.

The poinsettia is a very unique flower to enjoy in your home. It can start blooming as early as the end of October or early November and continue throughout the winter into early spring, as the blooms are really the bracts or leaves. There are other flowers that do this as well, such as the bromeliad, but the Poinsettia is our Christmas flower. Because the plant is a photoperiodic plant, meaning that it sets bud and produces flowers as the Autumn nights lengthen, and when it blooms is controlled by the amount of light it receives, you can make it bloom about any time you like under very controlled conditions. The timing to produce blooms for the Christmas holiday can be difficult outside of the controlled environment of a greenhouse. Stray light of any kind, such as from a streetlight or household lamps, can delay or entirely halt the re-flowering process.

One of the challenges that growers of the Poinsettia face is controlling the height of the plant. In its natural growing conditions in the wild, it can grow easily to sixteen feet. In the greenhouse the height can get out of hand if the growers do not use some type of control. One way to control the height is by using chemicals and a more natural way is by the use of natural bacteria-like organism, phytoplasma, which triggers a hormonal imbalance, instructing the plant to grow outward, rather than up like a tree. Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist Ing-Ming Lee, at the Molecular Plant Pathology Laboratory in Beltsville, MD, found that through plant grafting and DNA research, commercial growers can help dwarf our poinsettias to a mere eighteen inches in height, rather than growing them eight foot plus in height, which could make decorating your home or office with poinsettias certainly interesting, if not impossible.

According to the Society of American Florists, despite the long standing myth, the poinsettia is the most widely tested plant and has been proven to be non-toxic. Research conducted at The Ohio State University conclusively proved that all parts of the poinsettia are non-toxic to both humans and pets.

According to POISINDEX®, the information resource used by the majority of poison control centers around the country, a 50-pound child would have to eat 500-600 poinsettia leaves to surpass the experimental doses that showed no toxicity.

In addition, a study released last year by Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University found that out of nearly 23,000 poinsettia exposures reported to poison control centers nationwide, there was essentially no toxicity of significance of any kind.

Selecting a poinsettia > Excerpted from the South Carolina Master Gardener Training Manual, EC 678. Consider the following tips to ensure long-lasting beauty:

  • Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored bracts.
  • Select plants with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage all the way down the stem. The leaves and bracts should not be drooping.
  • Look for plants that are balanced, full and attractive from all sides.
  • Select durable plants with stiff stems, good bract and leaf retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping.

Keep your poinsettia beautiful > Excerpted from the South Carolina Master Gardener Training Manual, EC 678.To help your poinsettia thrive in your home during the holiday season, follow these tips:

  • Light: Set your poinsettia in a bright location so that it receives at least 6 hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Putting it in direct sunlight may fade the color of the bracts. If direct sun cannot be avoided, filter the sunlight with a light shade or sheer curtain.
  • Temperature: Excess heat will cause the leaves to yellow and fall off and the flower bracts to fade early. The daytime temperature should not exceed 70ºF. Do not put your poinsettia near drafts, excessive heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts. Chilling injury is also a problem and can cause premature leaf drop if the temperature drops below 50ºF.
  • Water and Fertilizer: Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water them thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Never let the potting mixture completely dry out and never let the plant sit in standing water. When watering, always take the plant out of its decorative pot cover. Water until water seeps out of the drainage hole and the soil is completely saturated. Do not fertilize a poinsettia when it is in bloom.

As red is the traditional color of the Poinsettia, it has been hybridized to where its bracts now boast an array of colors and effects. Though red is still the most popular, they have been produced with orange, white, pale green, cream, burgundy, speckled and marbled bracts. There are even blues and lavender colors!

With all the new colors and types of poinsettia available, a spectacular showing with the poinsettia can get you in trouble when mixing colors, as too much can easily ruin the effect! If in doubt, consult the designers at your florist as to what will work for you.

With the poinsettia staying beautiful for months and well into the spring, you might consider making it a showpiece, like having it planted in a special container, to compliment your home or office decor. Poinsettias are often combined with other compatible green and blooming plants. These make spectacular and very long lasting plant gardens. I am partial here, but my favorite way to display the beauty of the poinsettia is grouped in a fernery. In my opinion, it makes quite an impressive display with the warm contrast of the wood and flowers!

A few interesting facts about Poinsettias:

  • The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 80 percent of poinsettias in the United States for the wholesale market.
  • Ninety per cent of all the flowering poinsettias in the world got their start at the Paul Ecke Ranch.
  • There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias available.
  • $220 million worth of poinsettias are sold during the holiday season.
  • The cost of a poinsettia is determined by the number of blooms.

With Christmas ahead it is time to start thinking about decorating. The Poinsettia is an excellent choice with so many different choices of colors available today and they stay beautiful so long! Remember that Poinsettias are NOT poisonous! That is just an old wives tale that has been proven wrong extensively. I know that I look forward to seeing the many different colors arriving soon in the stores, for they really make it feel like Christmas every year. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the beautiful Poinsettia!


www.safnow.org (The Society of American Florists)



Horticulture Update, November/December 2000, produced by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

Clackamas Greenhouses

University of Illinois Extension Service at Urbana-Champaign



One Response to “Poinsettia > The Christmas Flower”

  1. Andrea Hoiseth

    I received a plant on Tuesday and took it out of the box on Thursday and one of the “flowers” is willted. It’s branch is at the bottom of the stalk. Is there anything I could do to bring it back or should I cut it off?
    Any information would be appreciated.
    Thank you