Sunday, December 16, 2012

Poinsettia Season

We first saw the poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in the 1820s,  brought to the US from Mexico by our ambassador, Joel Robert Poinsett.  The latin name came from a German botanist who thought the color was dazzling (pulcherrima means very beautiful).  Willliam Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, assigned the common name Poinsettia to the plant in honor of the person who brought it to the US.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico, and was known to the Aztecs as Cuetlaxochitl, and they used the bracts to produce a red dye.  There is a story that Montezuma had the plants brought by caravan to his palace because they wouldn't grow at that high an altitude.

True Poinsettia flowers

Many people don't realize that the colored bracts we enjoy so much are simply colored leaves; the poinsettia's true flower is inconspicuous, tiny and yellow.  I always heard that the poinsettia was poisonous if ingested, but Purdue University tests showed no signs of toxicity when they force-fed the plant to rats.  Their only negative finding was that some individuals may be sensitive to the plant's sap as a skin irritant.

Pink bracts

When you are buying a poinsettia, look for two things: bright green foliage all along the stem, and plants with little or no pollen showing on the true flowers.  Plants with older flowers will tend to drop their leaves earlier.  Always ask for a sleeve or some protection for your plant when you take it outdoors: if the poinsettia is exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees, it can cause wilting and dropping of bracts.  Indoor conditions in PA are not ideal for poinsettias: they are a native of the tropics.  They enjoy temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, moderate and not excess watering.  They like sunny days and cool nights.  A south-facing window sill is often an ideal location where it can get sun during the day and cooler temperatures at night.

(Information in this post was taken from the University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service)

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