Christmas Poinsettias: their history and care

T’is the season to be jolly and deck the halls with vibrantly colored seasonal plants to greet the coming holidays. Although a tropical plant, the most popular, best- selling holiday plant is the Poinsettia. Sales exceed 35 million plants yearly and contribute more than a quarter billion dollars to the US economy. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows more than 70% of plants sold in the US and 50% of those sold worldwide. North Carolina followed by Texas, Florida, and Ohio are the next leading producers.

Poinsettias became associated with Christmas in their native Central America and Mexico. Because plants bloom in December, Aztecs used the red blooms for centuries to decorate their churches at Christmas time and named it “Flower of the Holy Night.” They also believed that the shape of the central flowers symbolized the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus.

The Poinsettia is named after Joel Robert Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, who introduced plants to the US in 1828. Mr. Poinsett was also an amateur botanist who became interested in these unusual plants and sent some back to hisGreenville, South Carolina, plantation to be raised in his greenhouse. As Poinsett began sharing his plants with friends and botanical gardens, the plant’s popularity grew; their commercial potential also became evident.

During the first half of the twentieth century, several universities and commercial horticulture firms started breeding programs to improve varieties and select for desirable characteristics; included were new colors and longer-lasting blooms. There are now more than 100 varieties with red remaining as the best-selling color. Other colors available include shades of red, pink,salmon, white, gold, green, and speckled, or multicolored varieties. Sizes range from mini plants to large specimen trees.

Poinsettia plants consist of clusters of small, yellow, central flowers called cyathia. Often mistaken for the Poinsettia’s flowers, the leaves that turn red or other colors surrounding the cyathia are bracts, and the plant’s green foliage is below the bracts. In its native Mexico and Central America, a plant may grow to 6 to 12 feet, and blooms yearly in winter. In the US, plants grow outdoors into large shrubs or small trees in temperate coastal areas such as southern California and in other areas located in USDA plant hardiness zones 9-11 (Wake Forest is in USDA zone 7b). In colder climates, Poinsettias are indoor plants during winter months, but may be planted outdoors in spring.

Shopping for Poinsettias

Look for plants with the following characteristics:

1. Dark green, dense, and plentiful foliage; avoid plants with yellow, greenish white, or sagging leaves.

2. Tightly-clustered, unopened central flowers (cyathia); if these are open, falling, or shedding pollen, the plant is not fresh.

3. The bracts should be brightly colored; if partially green, your plant will lose color quickly.

4. As with any plant, make sure your Poinsettia is free from insects and diseases.

Caring for Plants

Poinsettias are tropical plants that do not tolerate low temperatures. Therefore, do not leave them in cars while shopping or in garages on cold days (below 50 degrees). Remove plants from f