Poinsettia: More than Meets the Eye

More often than not, you’ll find poinsettias — hopefully real ones — among the decorations of the holiday.

This plant is a standout in the mostly weed-filled and much-maligned spurge family Euphorbiaceae. This family includes lots of different plants that take on a variety of forms. It does include many weeds, but also many houseplants that have much more of a cactus form than poinsettia.  Relatives you might find as houseplants include a cactuslike plant with leaves on its margins (mainly just called Euphorbia), a plant called crown of thorns and a sticklike plant called pencil cactus. It is a weird family.

Behold! The insignificant poinsettia flower.

While we enjoy poinsettias for their bright colors, it would be incorrect to say that poinsettias have large, colorful blooms. The colors that we see are called bracts — brightly colored leaves.  These bracts change color much the same way leaves change color in the fall: They lose their green chlorophyll to expose the color beneath. This happens when the flowers, those ugly little yellowish lumps in the middle of the bract, mature.  And of course, we all know that the blooming and bract color change is in response to increased darkness — at least 16 hours of uninterrupted darkness is needed for a few weeks to initiate blooming.

While the classic red poinsettia (pronounced poin-SEH-tee-uh, not poin-SEH-tuh, by the way) lends itself to the classic colors of Christmas, it might be hard to figure out how this weed from Mexico found its way to the top of the list of traditional holiday plants.After all, it is a much more recent addition to the holiday decoration arsenal than the evergreens borrowed from ancient pagan rituals. Let’s take a little time away from holiday frivolities for a history lesson.

Poinsettia symbolism

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a native plant (and can grow as a fairly large shrub) in Mexico.  A local legend from the 14th century explains that Pepita, a young girl on her way to Christmas Eve service, was upset that she had no gift for the baby Jesus and picked a handful of weeds on her way to church.  As she placed the humble bundle of weeds on the altar, they erupted into brilliant red, and all those around exclaimed that it was a Christmas miracle.

Aside from the miracle legend associated with the flower, there are other connections between the plant and the holidays. The traditional red of the poinsettia is cited by many as a representation of the blood sacrifice of Christ, and the shape of the flower as the Star of Bethlehem.  Before poinsettias became a worldwide symbol of the holidays, Franciscan friars included the vivid plants in Christmas celebrations in the 17th century.  In Mexico, the plant is also known as Flor de Nochebuena, or Holy Night (Christmas Eve) Flower.

Becoming a holiday symbol

This is the guy who brought you the poinsettia, and so much more.

The poinsettia really didn’t come into its current fame until it was introduced to the United States in 1825, at the hands of a politician.  It just so happened that the first U.S. minister to Mexico (this was before we had ambassadors) was an amateur botanist. He brought the plant back to his private hothouses in South Carolina, and then shared it with friends (including renowned botanist John Bartram) who introduced the plant to the nursery trade.  It filled an empty spot in the nursery calendar, so nurseries were quick to embrace the plant.

The plant quickly was renamed Poinsettia (it was originally sold under its botanical name) in honor of the man who brought it to the country — Joel Roberts Poinsett.  His contribution to the plant’s history and the nursery business in the U.S. was honored by Congress, which has declared Dec. 12 National Poinsettia Day. A date which, oddly, commemorates the date of Minister Poinsett’s death.

Aside from his botanical triumph and service as minister to Mexico, Poinsett was also an “agent” to Chile and Argentina, a state representative, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and secretary of war.  Most people would be surprised to learn that the man who brought you the poinsettia also oversaw the removal of Cherokees from North Carolina to Indian Territory in 1838 and the military during the second Seminole War. But he was also involved in the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences and a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of the Sciences and Useful Arts.

This national institute, composed of politicians, promoted the use of the Smithson bequest to form a national museum. While they were defeated in their efforts, the institute went on to become part of the result of the Smithson bequest — the Smithsonian Institution.

Poinsettias everywhere

A sea of poinsettias at Gritt’s Midway in Eleanor, WV.

Real poinsettias (not the fake ones) can be found just about anywhere these days. Here in West Virginia, there’s actually a good chance that your poinsettia was grown locally. Many local nurseries grow poinsettias, and Gritt’s Midway Nursery in Eleanor actually grows and delivers plants to many stores, including most Kroger grocery stores.

Just remember to keep your plant in a cool, but not drafty, place to lengthen its lifespan. Don’t overwater it or let it sit in water, as it doesn’t appreciate wet feed.And also don’t worry about the plant being “poisonous.” It does contain a latex sap that will cause stomach issues and skin irritation in some, but has never caused any severe or fatal symptoms in those who accidentally ingest the plant, whether they are two- or four-legged.

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