The plant of the holiday season

Published 10:51 pm Thursday, December 15, 2011

Holiday flowers: Poinsettias, which are native to Central America, have become synonymous with Christmas over the years for their festive-colored leaves and the fact that they grow in Mexico during December.

With their festive holiday colors, including red and white, poinsettias have become synonymous with the Christmas season.

Their vibrant coloring adds to the mood of the season the same way Christmas trees and lights do.

But the plants haven’t always been part a holiday decoration. Poinsettias actually are a tropical plant and native to Central America.

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Prior to Europeans coming to the Western Hemisphere, the Aztecs used the plant for practical purposes, such as extracting dye to use in cosmetics and the plant’s white sap to treat fevers, according to

Poinsettias made their debut in the United States when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, bought them home with him.

While he was visiting Mexico in 1828, according to the website, he fell in love with the plants and sent some to his greenhouse in South Carolina.

Poinsett’s friend, Robert Buist, a botanist, named the plant euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning beautiful euphorbia, which is the genus of plants to which poinsettias belong, but in English-speaking counties, the plants were nicknamed poinsettias, after the man who brought them to America.

Tim Johnson, at Johnson’s Gardens on Holland Road, said the plants have been considered a holiday plant since they came on the market.

“Poinsettias coexist with Christmas,” he said. “It’s a good holiday plant.”

Although the plants traditionally have red leaves, Johnson said, there are a multitude of varieties and colors available.

“Nowadays, there are more colors than you can imagine,” he said. “They keep cultivating new varieties.”

People can still pick up the brilliant red poinsettias, but they also can opt for pink, white, orange or marbled, which includes two colors.

Johnson said while he likes all of the colors, he sticks with tradition and prefers the red poinsettias.

To pick a good poinsettia, he said, people should look at the plants to ensure the yellow part, which is actually the bloom, isn’t completely open.

Johnson said this indicates it hasn’t completely blossomed and should last four to six weeks.

Once purchased, poinsettias need plenty of light and water and should not be placed outside because they are tropical plants.

Johnson said some people try to salvage poinsettias after the season, but he recommends not worrying about it.

“Enjoy it for the season and throw them away,” he said. “Get a new one next year.”

As for the debate about the pronunciation of the plant’s name, Johnson said, the –ia should be pronounced, but it’s often shortened.

“In the North, they say ‘poinsett-ia,’” he said. “But in the South, we say it quickly because we have move on and get to other things.”