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Poinsettia –From Weed to Winner

  • Jeanne Price

    This is a Cinderella story from the plant world.   Since 1986 poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) have become the best selling potted plant in the United States, even though they are sold only two months out of the year while the competition, particularly chrysanthemums, are selling almost year round. In the year 2000, 65 million poinsettia plants were sold in the U.S. Projections are that demand for the plant will remain steady at an annual increase of three to five percent.


    The popular, beautiful plant is a native of Mexico where it grows tall and scraggly in the wild.   A member of the genus Euphorbia, it has the milky white sap or latex associated with the family Euphorbiaceae, but unlike some members of that family it is not poisonous.   This misconception grew from the misdiagnosis of the poisoning of a small child in Texas in 1919. According to Poisindex Information a 50-pound child would have to ingest over 500 bracts to even get a stomach ache, besides the taste is reported to be really awful. Some people sensitive to the plant might develop a rash.
    The bracts or modified leaves are not the petals of a blossom. The single female flower is petal-less and surrounded by male flowers in a cup-shaped cyathium in the center of the bracts.
    When you buy your poinsettia this year, here’s how to select a good one. Examine the cyathia, the little yellow or green berries in the center of the bracts. If they are tight, the plant is fresh. Choose stiff stems and good bract retention. Be wary of plants displayed in paper or other sleeves and crowded together. They need space and crowding can cause problems. Keep plants indoors at 68 to70 degrees and place in indirect sunlight for at least six hours a day. They will wilt if exposed, even briefly, to temperatures below 50 degrees.
    I have had a range of experiences with poinsettias. Some have held their color until Fourth of July and others have been returned shortly after purchase to be exchanged for a healthy plant.
    According to the Paul Ecke Ranch in southern California which has been researching, breeding and selling poinsettias for over 75 years, you should water when the soil feels dry to the touch and fertilize after the blooming season with a balanced all-purpose fertilizer. Don’t over water, Ecke advises, and don’t fertilize when in bloom.
    With proper care, dedication and luck you can re-bloom this year’s poinsettia.   In late March or early April cut it back to eight inches and place in a warm, but shady place. Water it regularly and feed with a balanced fertilizer to see new growth by the end of May. In the summer repot in new soil that includes sand and peat moss. When there is no chance of frost, place outside in full sun and keep soil evenly moist and feed every two to three weeks. Poinsettias are photoperiodic, so on the first of October plants must be kept in total darkness for 14 continuous hours each night at 68 to 70 degrees of temperature. During the day they need 6-8 hours of sunshine. Continue to give regular water and feedings for the next 8-10 weeks to get blooms for the holiday.
    A prevailing legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico where on a Christmas Eve a poor child had no gift for the baby Jesus. So he picked some weeds to make a bouquet and when offered to the holy child it miraculously became the beautiful red bloom.
    The Aztecs used the white sap to medicate fevers. The bracts were used to make dye for cloth. The first religious connection with the flower was in the 17th century when Franciscan priests near Taxco used them in the Fiesta de Santa Pesebre.
    Discovered by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he introduced them into the U.S. in 1825. Poinsett was a passionate amateur botanist. He is credited with introducing the American elm to Mexico and bringing the mimosa and hibiscus into the U.S. In Taxco he found the giant crimson plant growing wild and sent cuttings back to his South Carolina plantation.
    Paul Ecke, Sr., and his dad Albert, however, were the first to promote poinsettias as a winter holiday flower over 80 years ago. They cultivated the plant on their ranch near Hollywood and sold the blooms from roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The company is still one of the largest poinsettia growers. The plants are now commercially grown in every state in the union even Alaska, but California heads the list in number grown and sold.