Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are one of the most popular and symbolic holiday season decorations. They can be seen all over the world for different occasions and bear many names. The history behind the origins of the poinsettia is as warming as the holidays. Normally, caring for this plant is laborious. Making certain it stays alive is a hard working task. Plants have to be watered daily, soil must be fresh and sunlight is to be provided. In a similar way, poinsettias need arduous attention throughout the year.
The History of the Poinsettia
The history of the poinsettias is dated as far back as the Aztec civilization where they were used in midwinter celebrations to represent purity and blood sacrifice. The Aztecs referred to the poinsettia plant as “Cuetlaxochitl.” They utilized the sap for fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) to make reddish dyes. Centuries later, Joel Roberts Poinsett, botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant into the United States in 1828. When Joel passed away on December 12<sup>th</sup>1851, in honor of his discovery, the plant received the name Poinsettia and decorated the Mexican holiday “Dia de la Virgen” (Day of the Virgin of Gaudalupe).
All around the world this popular holiday decoration bears many names and has even been used for other holidays. Native to Mexico, they are known as “La Flor de la Nochebuena” (Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve) decorating the Christmas holiday with joy. On December 12<sup>th</sup>, which is known to be “Dia de la Virgen” (Day of the Virgin of Gaudalupe), Mexico is also coincidentally displayed by Poinsettias. In South America, specifically Chile and Peru, they are referred to as the “Crown of the Andes;” whereas, in Spain they symbolize a different holiday, Easter, and referred to as “Flor de Pascua” (Easter Flower). Poinsettias have also been known to be called the lobster flower, winter rose, Christmas star, Christmas flower and Mexican flameleaf flower, due to the red color.
Fun fact: There is an endearing legend behind the Poinsettia plant that has been retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, watch the video below!
Characteristics of the Poinsettia
Poinsettias are part of the Euphobiaceae family that oozes a milky sap. When grown in the wild they are perennial flowering shrubs that at one time were considered weeds. Although they bloom near the holiday season they are not frost tolerant.
Conversely, the colored parts of the plant are actually colored bracts (modified leaves) and not flowers. The cyathia, or yellow flowers can be seen in the center of the colorful bracts. Shortly after the flowers shed their pollen the plant drops its bracts and leaves. The process of how the colors of the poinsettia are formed is quite intriguing. The colors of the bracts are created through a process called "photoperiodism", meaning that they require darkness for 12 hours for at least five days in a row to change color. Once Poinsettias finish that development, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
Many people believe that poinsettias are lethal plants but, with the research of Ohio State University, a 50 pound child would have to eat about 500 to 600 leaves to have any side effects. The side effect usually causes an upset stomach and vomiting but it would be rare to eat that many due to its horrid taste. Therefore, <em>keep away from children and pets.</em>