By Charles Kidder
…I say Poin-set-ee-yuh, dum-de-dum, etc.” Take your pick, although the first pronunciation is favored in at least some dictionaries. Perhaps you might avoid the issue altogether and call it by its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, “the most beautiful euphorbia.” But before we take a closer look at the poinsettia, what about the “less beautiful” euphorbias?
Euphorbias are a diverse group of plants; with about 2,100 species, it’s also one of the largest genera of flowering plants. Often referred to as spurges, the name derives from the purgative nature of some species’ milky sap. Depending on the species, the sap is generally caustic and reputedly even poisonous in some cases. Some euphorbias are worthy garden plants or attractive wildflowers, while others are horrendous weeds. Euphorbia prostrata, sometimes known as prostrate sandmat, is a crack-in-the-sidewalk invader that thrives in hot, inhospitable conditions. And many euphorbias from dry tropical areas are succulents; they resemble cacti, but aren’t related.
In the early nineteenth century Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico, encountered a native shrub with attractive red “flowers” that appeared in early winter. Mexicans called the plant Flor de Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve Flower. Legend told that in the sixteenth century a poor Mexican girl had no money to buy flowers for the church altar at Christmas time. Instead, she gathered weeds from the roadside, placed them in the church, and the next day they were flowering. Taken by the plant’s beauty, Poinsett introduced it to the United States in 1825, where it was then named after him.
As for those red things that Poinsett was admiring, in reality euphorbias have small, inconspicuous, highly specialized flowers. They lack petals, but are surrounded by colorful leaves known as bracts, typically red on Poinsettias. I am hereby guilty of a botanical error, but just to keep life simple, I’ll refer to this whole colorful structure as a “flower” from here on.
Although Mr. Poinsett gets the credit for introducing the poinsettia to the United States, one family almost single-handedly deserves credit for making it a fixture of the Christmas season. In 1900 Albert Ecke emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles, started a farm and began selling poinsettias. His son Paul Ecke then developed a grafting technique that improved the appearance of the plant. And his son Paul Ecke, Jr. in turn began heavily promoting poinsettias, sending plants to television stations to use on their sets, making personal appearances on shows, etc. Eventually the Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias. Until the early 1990s, that is.
A university researcher figured out the Eckes’ grafting technique and published a paper describing it. It didn’t take long before a flood of competitors entered the poinsettia business. Often growing plants offshore, they were able to provide cheap poinsettias to mass-market retailers, often selling them at a loss just to lure shoppers into their stores. The Eckes’ share of the market declined, profit margins shrank, and in 2012 the family operation was sold to the Agribio Group—now there’s a warm, fuzzy name!— based in Holland.
I occasionally attend poinsettia shows, and these only go to show that you can have too much of a good thing. A room full of hundreds of poinsettias, with dozens of varieties, can indeed produce sensory overload. But soon enough, your eyeballs will calm down, and you can focus on a few plants at a time. Over a hundred varieties are out there, but they primarily boil down to a few color selections: red, burgundy, pink/salmon and yellow/cream/white. You’ll also find some marbled varieties, for example pink and yellow swirled together, or “rose” types that look more like mutant cabbages to my eye. Color choice is strictly a matter of personal preference, but it pays to consider how your plant will work with your room’s existing palette.
What about care of your poinsettias? First, remember that this is a tropical plant, and it doesn’t like cold temperatures, and that includes anything it encounters after it leaves the store. Just carrying a plant to your car on a frigid day can affect its health, so try to shop on a mild day if possible. And if the weather is cold, don’t plop your plant in the car and then go off for another hour of shopping.
At home, avoid extremes of hot and cold, especially drafts. Don’t put the plant close enough to a window where the leaves might touch cold glass. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, your poinsettia won’t like being cooked by a roaring fireplace. Daytime temperatures of 65-75 degrees are best, i.e. pretty much in the human comfort range. At night, a temp in the low 60s would be best, but not absolutely necessary. Bright indirect light from a south-, east- or west-facing window is ideal. Water the plant thoroughly when the soil surface is dry, but don’t let the pot sit in a wet saucer. This can lead to root rot, which is usually fatal.
What about after the holidays? Is it worthwhile trying to carry your poinsettia over to next Christmas? While I can’t claim that I have ever done so, you can certainly find very detailed instructions on the Internet. I checked with Crozet’s Cottage Gardener, since I knew that she often carried her poinsettias over. She puts the plant out for the summer, then brings it inside when the first frost is forecast. She warned that since white flies and aphids can be a problem, bringing every ladybug in sight onto her porch helps to control the pests. Notwithstanding the success of some, I like what garden writer Marie Ianotti says about keeping poinsettias from year to year: “It’s a very fussy exacting process, and since the plants are not that expensive, you might just choose to start fresh next year.” Besides, you might decide you want to try some different colors.
One last thought on poinsettias: are they poisonous, especially to pets? Well, I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t even played one on television. However, a little Internet searching indicates that poinsettia sap is irritating and caustic, not something you want to ingest or even get on your skin. But not exactly what we would consider to be poisonous either. Still, keeping your kids and pets away from poinsettias is likely to mean a merrier Christmas for all concerned.
Enjoy your poinsettias, and the holiday season as well!