JoAnne Skelly: Ambassador brought us poinsettia

Thank goodness for Joel Roberts Poinsett, ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Without him, we might not have poinsettias as part of our holiday traditions. He was enthralled with the plant now named after him. Supposedly, he liked the red-flowered small tree so much he sent plants back to his greenhouses in South Carolina. There he propagated more plants and started giving them to friends. Eventually, other plant specialists turned them into big horticultural sellers.

According to a Mexican legend, little Pepita had no present for the baby Jesus at the church’s Christmas service, so she picked some weeds along the way and made them into a bouquet. When she laid them at the nativity scene in the church, they suddenly burst into bright red flowers. From then on they were called the “flowers of the Holy Night.” Some legends say the star shape represents the star of Bethlehem.

What a lovely story. Well, the botanist in me has to say, the beautiful red structures on the poinsettia aren’t flowers at all. They are bracts, which are reduced or modified leaves. The flowers are actually the tiny structures in the center of all those red “petals.” Usually these insignificant flowers are yellow. However, they are greatly overshadowed by the showiness of the bracts that are usually red, but which may also be white, variegated, pale green, cream-colored or pink.

Euphorbia pulcherrima is a member of the spurge family. Many of our weeds are spurges, including the noxious weed leafy spurge. The castorbean plant, cassava (tapioca), croton, crown of thorns and others are related to the poinsettia. And while the castorbean is a highly toxic plant, the poinsettia’s toxicity is exaggerated, although its milky sap can definitely be an irritant. According to poison-control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat over 500 poinsettia leaves to reach a toxic dose. While eating parts of poinsettias shouldn’t kill a person or an animal, it might cause nausea and induce vomiting. However, the flavor is so bad it stops most children or animals from chewing on the leaves.

To take care of your poinsettia keep it near a sunny window, but don’t let any part of the plant touch the windowpanes or be in a draft. The optimal temperature is 60 to 70 degrees, although cooler night temperatures (55 to 60 degrees) will extend blooming. Water thoroughly when the soil feels dry. Feed with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer once or twice a month.

JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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