Story and photo by Donna Iverson
Poinsettia plants are the quintessential Christmas decoration plant. Every December, they multiply on shop shelves, appear in indoor holiday displays, and are found on many a work desk to mark the season.
Their red leaves with tiny yellow flowers can't be missed and it's hard to resist buying a colorful plant or two, as winter descends and snow covers the ground.
Ironically while they make their appearance in December, the poinsettia is a tropical plant that absolutely hates cold. Even a few minutes exposed to cold temperatures can damage the plant. So if you buy one, wrap it up in a blanket as you dash to your car. Just kidding, but do cover it up with something like a heavy paper bag.
While it looks like an exotic cultivar, poinsettia is actually native to North America, and grows prolifically in Mexico where it is not a potted plant but a perennial shrub that can grow 10 to 15 feet tall. In affect, a small tree.
However, the poinsettias that Americans buy do not come from Mexico. Seventy percent of them are grown in California. It's a good business. Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant sold in this country. It is a $250 million dollar business. Seventy million plants are sold every year.
Urban legiend has it that poinsettia plants are toxic to dogs and cats. Only slightly true. As animals would have to pretty much eat the entire plant to cause illness. A few leaves may cause mild diarrhea but nothing more. Still, you might want to discourage snacking.
Poinsettias have been breed to come in a wonderful variety of colors, including pink, cream and even blue. But red remains the most popular.
Caring for your poinsettias is relatively easy. It likes indirect light for at least six hours a day. Do not over water and it will last for months. Once a poinsettia begins to fade, you probably would like to know how to keep it alive until the next holiday season. Unless you live in the south, where you could plant your poinsettia outdoors, you would need a greenhouse in the north to keep it alive. Even then, you must provide 14 hours of absolute darkness daily during October for it to redevelop those scarlet red leaves, officially known as bracts.
As for history buffs, the poinsettia is named after a South Carolina botanist and American ambassador to Mexico back in 1828. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett and December 12 was chosen as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate his introduction of this plant to the US.
And what is the correct pronunciation ?? ...it is correctly pronounced both poin-set-ah and poin-set-tia.