A poinsettia passion

Published 10:38 pm Monday, December 21, 2009

The poinsettia, or Euphorbia pulcherrima, which literally means “the most beautiful Euphorbia,” is a common Christmas decoration with exotic origins and practical uses.

“The flower was first cultivated by the Aztec Indians in Mexico, where they used the sap of the plant as fever medicine and the bracts (red leaves) to make crimson dye,” said JoEllen Gienger, general manager of Smithfield Gardens.

The red bracts of the plant, which are green until the dark days of winter, often are mistaken as the flower when, in fact, it’s the yellow balls in the center of the plant that are the flowers.

“The bracts need darkness and more hours in order for the bracts to turn color,” Gienger said. “It’s around Christmastime they color up to Christmas colors.”

The plant was first brought to America by Joesef Poinsett, United States Ambassador to Mexico, during the winter months. Poinsett attended medical school, but his passion was botany. He discovered the plant in 1825 while on business in Mexico and sent samples to his home in Greenville, S.C., where he bred them in his greenhouses.

In the last hundred years, the plant’s green and red colors have made it a Christmas staple. Now, many stores are selling it white, pink, and hybrid colors.

“Every Christmas we sell more and more and more of them. It’s an inexpensive way to bring Christmas in to your home,” said Tim Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Gardens. “Originally, it was used as a cut flower, but as a potted plant it’s been associated with Christmas.”

Although, it’s a Christmas plant in America, it’s not recommended you put the plants outside in the cold.

“It’s a desert plant – almost like a cactus,” said Johnson.

To make your poinsettia last, give it only one cup of water a week, keep it inside, and make sure it gets regular sunlight.