Can you guess how many poinsettias are sold in a year? Would you believe that last year more than 70 million were sold nationwide? Poinsettias accounted for one-third of sales of all flowering potted plants. So how did the poinsettia become the official flower of Christmas?
December 12th is National Poinsettia Day and has been an official day since the mid-1980’s. The date was picked in honor of the man whom the plant is named for, Joel Roberts Poinsett who died on December 12, 1851 (1779-1851). A U.S. statesman born in Charleston, South Carolina, he was secretary of war under President Van Buren but is remembered most as the diplomat whom the poinsettia plant is named for.
He became a legislator and then a member of Congress and eventually became a U.S. minister to Mexico from 1825- 1829. His interest as an amateur botanist led him to bring the plant from Mexico that was renamed for him. He discovered a shrub with brilliantly colored red leaves growing by the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico, in December 1828 and sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina.
The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.
One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course, they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers.
Christmas would not be Christmas without the traditional poinsettia flowers somewhere in the house or by the fireplace. Did you know that the poinsettia’s main attraction is not its flowers, but its leaves? The flowers of the plant are the yellow clustered buds in the center (termed “cyathia”). The colored leafy parts are actually bracts or modified leaves, that turn color in response to the plant forming flowers. When buying a poinsettia, make sure it has the buds, preferably not yet open.
Although every state in the United States grows poinsettias commercially, California is the top producer, followed by North Carolina, Texas, Florida and Ohio.
At one time it was thought that this vibrant plant was poisonous, toxic and dangerous, especially to pets. It turned out to be a myth and not true.
The origin of this misinformation apparently dates back to 1919 when the death of an army officer’s two-year-old child was wrongly attributed to the ingestion of Poinsettia leaves. Since then, the myth of the poisonous Poinsettia has continued to spread. You can read the full story on http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/poinsettia.asp
If you live in a cold area, make sure your newly-purchased poinsettia is protected from store to home and wrapped so. Poinsettias should be kept out of drafts, placed in a warm place and the soil kept evenly moist. After the colorful flowers (bracts) fall off, set the plant in a cool room and let the soil stay nearly dry until the spring. Then move to a sunny spot, water well and watch for new growth. Repot in new soil and cut back to 6 inches from the pot rim. Poinsettias can grow in a sunny interior or in a protected area outdoors. Pinch to encourage new branches so you will have more blooms. To assure holiday blooms, keep the plant in absolute darkness from sundown to sunup 10 weeks beginning in October.
Ref: Encycopedia of House Plants; http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/flowers.htm ; http://www.annieshomepage.com ; Ref: http://www.landsteward.org.
Marie Coppola Revised December 2014