Think you know all about poinsettia flowers? Below are five facts about these iconic holiday plants that would surprise many people.
- Is "poinsettia" the botanical or the common name for the plants?
- Why do they flower around Christmastime?
- What color is the true flower?
- Can poinsettias be harmful to your health?
- What is the correct pronunciation for "poinsettia?"
Plant Taxonomy and Type
Plant taxonomy classifies Christmas poinsettias as Euphorbia pulcherrima, literally, "the most beautiful Euphorbia" (Euphorbia is not only a genus name but also the name of a large plant family).
If Euphorbia pulcherrima is the scientific name for these plants, one may well ask how their common name (which looks like it should be a scientific name!) is derived. Well, the common name derives from the fact that Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the first specimens to North America (1828).
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a sub-tropical plant, native to Mexico. There, it is a deciduous flowering shrub, growing up to 10 feet in height. Intolerant of the cold, in the North, it is grown almost exclusively indoors. The plants are raised in greenhouses (it is big business), to be sold as potted flowers for the holidays. Enormously popular holiday gifts, they are treated by most of their recipients as houseplants.
The salient point about their status as sub-tropical plants is that, when transporting them in cold weather (say, from a florist shop to your home), they need to be wrapped for protection.
Characteristics and Growing Requirements
When mention is made of poinsettia plants, most people think of the color, red. But the "flowers" also come in white, yellow, pink and color combinations. The "marbled" type is one of the most fascinating. Available from florists in a variety of sizes, an average height for potted poinsettia plants is perhaps about two feet (not counting the container).
If you want to treat poinsettia flowers as annuals, you can grow them outside for a bit of extra greenery. But frankly, they are not anything special without the colors that nurseries artificially induce them to put on at Christmas. You can move them outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Grow them in well-drained soil and in a sunny spot that receives a fair amount of shade in the afternoon—water needs are moderate to high.
Forcing Poinsettias to Flower at Christmas
These "are short-day plants." The only reason you can buy them at the florist shop in bloom during the Yuletide season is that greenhouse operators have manipulated their bud set. Flowering is dictated by a number of daylight hours available. If you wish to replicate this "forcing" and get your plant to bloom again, you will need "about 10 weeks with 12 hours or less of sunlight per day." Sound like a lot of work? You bet it is! In other words: getting them to flower again is a real pain—something best left to greenhouse operators.
The "Flowers" of Christmas Poinsettia Plants
When laymen speak of the "flowers" on poinsettia plants, what they are referring to are petal-like leaves known as "bracts." Euphorbia pulcherrima does have flowers, but these green and yellow flowers are small—and certainly not a noteworthy feature. The colorful bracts form around (and just below) these inconsequential flowers.
Poinsettia Aren’t Poisonous But Can Make You Sick
Regarding the toxicity of Euphorbia pulcherrima, one could say, "A new myth has grown up in the process of dispelling an old myth." Here are the facts about the old myth and the new one:
As many have pointed out, it is a myth that poinsettia plants are deadly poisonous if a child or pet eats the leaves (but that does not mean that the leaves should intentionally be eaten, either, since, if eaten in sufficient quantity, they can, in fact, make a human or pet at least mildly sick). But because this fact is so widely known now, people have let down their guard and allowed a new myth to take hold, as a reaction: namely, the myth that no health issues whatsoever surround the annual displaying of poinsettia plants. Only two words need be uttered to dispel the new myth: latex allergy.
The fact is, this Christmas icon can make some people quite sick. The harm, in these cases, comes not from eating the leaves, but rather from touching the plant or even simply from being around Euphorbia pulcherrima.
The milky sap (the "latex," if you will) that oozes from the branches can result in contact dermatitis in some people. So unless you like to itch, avoid the sap, in case you are one of those prone to develop this rash. At the very least, be sure not to touch your eyes after touching the sap. The illnesses that some people suffer just from being around poinsettia plants (without even touching them) are worse yet (for example, difficulty in breathing). In extreme cases, anaphylaxis can result.
Some readers with latex allergy have shared their personal stories about health problems stemming from contact with these colorful plants. You might be surprised to learn just how many people get sick due to exposure to poinsettias.
Spelling and Pronunciation
We can thank the derivation of the plant's name from Ambassador "Poinsett" for the numerous misspellings that abound. People seem intent on spelling the name "poinsetta," for example (dropping the I near the end of the word). Another common misspelling involves inserting an extra T (the fact that "points" is a nickname commonly used in the florist and nursery trades probably does not help matters here). "Pointsetta" is a spelling even more off-base, but it is also more common than one might imagine. Why couldn't the ambassador have been named, "Smith?"
Such misspellings have spawned mispronunciations (or is it the other way around?). Dictionaries list poin-SET-ee-uh and poin-SET-uh as acceptable pronunciations. However, both folks in the industry and their customers regularly insert a "T" after the "N" when speaking, so that the word most often ends up being pronounced as point-SET-uh.
Christmas Poinsettia Legend
The legend regarding Euphorbia pulcherrima begins long ago with a peasant girl in Mexico, faced with a problem on Holy Night: she lacked the means to contribute a gift in the Christ Child ceremony at the church, as all the other children would be doing. The girl was, however, reassured that to use a modern expression, "it's the thought that counts."
Taking this advice, she picked some roadside weeds on the way to church to make a bouquet. But when she arrived at the church, and it was time for her to present her gift, the bouquet of weeds was transformed into something much more colorful: red Christmas poinsettias! Thus was born an enduring Christmas tradition, as we continue to associate these "flowers" with the holiday season.