If Christmas had an official flower it has to be the poinsettia, it is an iconic symbol of the holiday season. And really what could be more fitting for a holiday filled with snowmen, hot chocolate, evergreens, and visits from the North Pole than a shrubby euphorbia from the Pacific coastal mountains of Mexico… wait… what? Yep, it’s true. This iconic Christmas symbol is a species of euphorbia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that is native to mid-elevation pacific coastal slopes in Central America. It’s not really what you might expect from a Christmas icon, so it got me thinking, how much do we really know about this gorgeous seasonal beauty?
The first thing we need to address is pronunciation… “poin-set-tea-ah,” not “point-set-ah.” It’s a pretty minor thing and some might be tempted to roll their eyes at me, but there is a reason behind it. It is actually named after someone, Joel Roberts Poinsett, and I’m sure he would appreciate it if you get his name right. Actually, he died a number of years ago, but still… when you know better, you do better.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was a botanist and the first United States Minister to Mexico, he introduced the plant into the United States back in the 1820s. The story goes that he admired the plants while living in Mexico so he sent some back to his greenhouses in South Carolina. Others noticed and in 1829 Colonel Robert Carr displayed them at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. One thing led to another and now there are over 100 different cultivated varieties.
Euphorbia pulcherrima is not as good looking as what is available for your seasonal display. Cultivars today are compact and multi-branched, which results in a perfect houseplant that is absolutely covered in “blooms.” I put blooms in quotes because what we think of as the petals are actually modified leaves (called bracts), the flowers are the tiny little yellow bits in the centre. While the species is red, thanks to years of breeding, we now have a smorgasbord of Christmas colour to choose from. I have to admit that the traditional deep velvety red is still my favourite, but you can also get hot pink, light pink, fuchsia, yellow, cream and more recently white. And to make it even better you can also get these colours mixed in the most amazing specked, spotted, and marbled patterns. There really is a colour or look to suit every Christmas décor you can imagine, a perfect poinsettia for everyone.
Something relatively new to the poinsettia scene are the Princettias. They have slightly smaller, thinner bracts, but they also have way more of them. The result is a stunning compact plant that is an absolute mass of colour. And a bit of a “unicorn” for poinsettias is a true white colour. In the past true white was difficult for the breeders to get (due to a number of technical things like genetics, cultural practices and temperature). But the breeders are improving their craft and pure whites are starting to come onto the scene, including the Princettias. So, be sure to check out the Princettias for something new and beautiful.
So how did these shrubs or small trees come to be associated with a winter wonderland holiday? Well, I did some research and it seems there are a number of theories and stories. The most popular is a Mexican legend of a girl, who was too poor to buy a gift for Jesus, on the celebration of his birthday, similar to the tale of the little drummer boy. Inspired by an angel, she gathered some weeds from the roadside which she placed in front of the altar. The story tells that crimson flowers sprouted from the weeds and became the poinsettia.
Other theories of the use of the poinsettia as a Christmas staple are attributed to the star-shaped pattern that the leaves make being symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, or that it all started in with 17th century Franciscan friars in Mexico who used poinsettias in their Christmas celebrations. But to be honest, the reason we are so lucky to have the poinsettia comes down to a good idea and some good marketing. The Ecke family started propagating and selling the plants way back in the early 1900s from a street stand in the Los Angeles area. Three generations later Paul Ecke Jr. decided to “up the ante.” He sent free plants to television stations to use as seasonal on-air decorations. They began to grace the news as well as programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials. The public noticed, and the poinsettia was cemented as a Christmas tradition.
I know I am grateful for the work that was done through history to bring these beauties to my holiday season, it’s just not Christmas without a poinsettia. The only thing left to do is to decide on a colour that suits your holiday style (there really is a poinsettia for everyone). So, head down to GardenWorks to grab your own Central American shrubby euphoria and say Olé, I mean Merry Christmas.
Reblooming your Poinsettia:
It seems I can’t talk poinsettias without at least one person asking me about what to do with them once the holiday season is over. To be honest, I treat mine like an annual and it’s off to the compost bin once the New Year has arrived. But many people feel attached to their plants and want to hang on to them. If that is the case then make sure to put it somewhere bright and warm (tropical shrub, remember). When the temperatures heat up in the summer you may wish to put it outside. But once September rolls around you need to bring it back inside and you’re going to need to put in a bit of work to get your poinsettia to change colour for Christmas. It is a process called photoperiodism and I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit complicated. You have to control the light and dark periods that the plant is exposed to, in order to make it think that it is happily growing on the side of mountain in Mexico and the time is right to put on a show. The plant will need at least 14 hours of darkness at a time for 6-8 weeks in a row to change colour, no exceptions. I did go through a period where I was curious and tried my own hand at re-blooming a poinsettia. It involved a fair bit of work, a garbage bag and my closet. And now I am firmly in the camp of “a new year, a new poinsettia.”
Poinsettias are easy to grow, just as long as you don’t stress them out by exposing them to extremes, specifically in temperature and water. Remember this is a tropical shrub, so not in front of the fireplace (at least while you have a fire) or heat vent, and not too close to the window or in a draft either. Also avoid watering extremes, don’t let it dry out, but also never let it sit in water. Keep your plant stress free and it will keep you stress free by being a beautiful beacon of the Holiday season.
- Other names for Poinsettia include, Christmas star, Mexican flame flower, and painted leaf.
- The Aztec people were the first to cultivate this plant, they used it to make red dye.
- December 12 is National Poinsettia Day in United States. It is the anniversary of Poinsett’s death.
- While many euphorbias are known for being slightly aggressive and even weedy, poinsettias are actually somewhat endangered in their natural habitat due to deforestation.
- In the wild poinsettias can grow 0.6-4m (2-13’) tall.
Written by: Ingrid Hoff