Poinsettias Are Holiday Favorites

A poinsettia plant with pretty pink bracts instead of traditional red ones. (Photo © Hilda M. Morrill)
A poinsettia plant with pretty pink bracts instead of traditional red ones. (Photo © Hilda M. Morrill)

The plant we know today as the poinsettia has a long and interesting history. The fact is, that the lovely plant many of us place in our homes during the holidays was once used as a fever medicine.

Native to Central America, it flourished in an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The ancient Aztecs had a name for the plant they found blooming in the tropical highlands during the short days of winter, “cuetlaxochitl.”

Not merely decorative, it had practical uses as well. From its bracts they extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The milky white sap was made into a preparation to treat fevers.

The poinsettia may have remained merely a regional plant had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). The son of a French physician, Mr. Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) by President Madison. Mr. Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantation.

While visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating them and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

Among the recipients of Poinsett’s plants was John Bartram of Philadelphia, who in turn shared with another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Mr. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (literally, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”). Though it is thought to have become known by its more popular name of “Poinsettia” around 1836, the origin of the name is certainly clear.

When you buy poinsettias, choose plants with thoroughly colored and expanded bracts. (Bracts are the colored portions of the plant, while the actual flowers are the yellow centers). Choose plants with stiff stems and no signs of wilting. Avoid waterlogged soil. When transporting, protect from chilling winds and temperatures below 50 degrees.

If possible, at home or in the office, place your plant in indirect sunlight for at least six hours per day. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. Don’t place near cold drafts or excessive heat, such as that of appliances or fireplaces.

Although the widespread belief that poinsettias are poisonous is false, they are not intended for human or animal consumption. Certain individuals may even experience an allergic reaction to them.

In 1992 the poinsettia was included on the list of houseplants most helpful in removing pollutants from indoor air. So, not only is it a safe and beautiful addition to your holiday décor, it can even help keep your indoor air clean.

Incidentally, an Act of Congress has declared December 12 as “National Poinsettia Day.” The date marks the death in 1851 of Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Happy Holidays!

(Note: We are repeating an edited version of our popular holiday article about poinsettias. A big “thank you” to the Ecke Family of Encinitas, California, for initially providing us with lots of poinsettia information in 1998 to share with our readers.)