It's been a few years since I've written a column about poinsettias, but the different plants we're seeing in the garden centers and grocery stores these days prompted my interest in this popular Christmas decoration.
This time of year, poinsettias are everywhere. Not just the plants themselves, but they are represented on everything from wrapping paper to tablecloths. I might even have a pair of poinsettia earrings in my jewelry case.
Besides the fact that the original poinsettia was brilliant red with dark green leaves giving it the traditional colors of the holidays, poinsettias today can be everything from white to pale pink to blue. Blue poinsettias and others with exotic coloring aren't grown that way but are injected with a systemic dye by growers. The dye eventually fades and the bracts go back to their original colors, usually red or pink.
But regardless of the shade you choose, I decided to go on a search as to why these plants are so popular this time of year. After all, getting them to bloom for the season in our climate requires a delicate dance of natural light for a few weeks, and unless you are a grower with an expensive system involving timers and black retractable curtains, we amateur poinsettia rebloomers don't really know what we'll get when the time comes for the big reveal.
So why poinsettias and why Christmas?
Interestingly enough, there is actual folklore that combines Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia) with Christmas. The plant originated from Mexico, and this is where the legend also arises with a story of a poor, young girl called Pepita who wished for a present to offer the baby Jesus during Christmas Eve services. According to this Mexican tale, as Pepita walked to the chapel, she felt very sad because she was empty-handed. Desperate for a gift, she knelt by the side of the road and picked a bouquet of ragged-looking flowering weeds. It was all she had, but yet Pepita knew it wouldn't matter. Although she was embarrassed by her gift, she knew the baby Jesus would accept her meager offering because it was given with love.
According to legend, as Pepita walked toward the altar, her bouquet of weeds unfolded into the brilliant red bracts of the poinsettia. Those who witnessed this burst of color believed they were seeing a miracle. Forever after, the poinsettia was known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
The plant was introduced to the United States with much less fanfare. The first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, discovered the plant and brought it back around 1825.
But even before Poinsett, poinsettias were a useful plant in southern Mexico, particularly for the Aztec culture. They used the plant to make a red dye and used the white sap as medicine. I wouldn't recommend this even though research from The Ohio State University disproved the myth that this plant is toxic. According to the national information center for poison control centers (POISINDEX), a child would have to ingest 500 to 600 leaves to reach the level of experimental doses that contained no toxicity. That's not to say it couldn't cause gastric distress if eaten or fed to your cats and dogs, and I won't be putting the leaves on my sandwich anytime soon.
The white sap inside the leaves and the plant's hollow stems does contain latex, but even the American Latex Allergy Association says people with latex allergies are unlikely to have a reaction to the sap in poinsettia plants. Of course, it's always better to be cautious if you or family members have issues.
Enjoy your poinsettias, whether you received them as gifts or purchased them yourself because this holiday just wouldn't be the same without a few poinettias placed under the tree or on the mantel.
Tune in next week and I'll tell you what to do with your plant after the holidays. You may even be able to get it to rebloom next year.