Poinsettia: The Christmas Flower That Blooms in the Dark

Poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are popular Christmas decorations and are also the highest selling potted plant in the world

The poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is the equivalent of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You. You don’t even remember they exist until the first day you walk into a store in November and suddenly it’s the holiday season and Christmas is coming.

And then you’re positively bombarded with them until January 1 at which point Mariah Carey probably gets her giant royalty check for the year (a 2016 study by The Economist found that Carey makes about $2.5m per year for the song and the song had made $60m until that year) and goes on vacation and all the poinsettias just…disappear.

And just like Mariah’s popular Christmas bop, poinsettias are economically important—they’re the highest-selling potted plant in the world. During the holiday season, the six weeks leading up to Christmas, $250 million worth of poinsettia plants—70 million plants—are sold in the United States alone. The plants are even more popular in Europe. There are over 100 different varieties of poinsettia plants patented in the United States.

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History of the Poinsettia

Poinsettias were cultivated by the Aztecs and though they didn’t grow in the capital city of Tenochtitlan—now Mexico City—Aztec royalty imported the flowers from lower elevations during the winter months for use as a medicine to control fevers and as a reddish-purple fabric dye.

The Nahua people of Mexico and Central America call these Aztec favorites cuetlaxochitl but they go by many other names, too—lobster flower, flame leaf flower, La Flor de la Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower).

But poinsettia is probably the weirdest name of all because it’s just a shout-out to the American diplomat who is credited with being the first to bring them back to the U.S. from Mexico in the 19th century. Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first U.S. minister to Mexico and as an amateur botanist is said to have sent some cuttings back to his home in South Carolina from Southern Mexico in 1828 although there is no irrefutable proof of this.

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What is known is that the plant was on display in Philadelphia in 1829, associated with Poinsett’s name. The plant was immediately popular and was known henceforth as the poinsettia although it didn’t receive its official Latin name until 1934 when German botanist Karl Willde was given a cutting by a Scottish friend who had seen it in Philadelphia and named it Euphorbia pulcherrima.

In the 1920s the Ecke family of Encinitas, California started farming poinsettias and they tirelessly pushed them as a symbol of the Christmas season. Today, around 70 percent of the poinsettia plants you buy in the United States come from Ecke Ranch and poinsettia care is their lifeblood.

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Caring for Poinsettias

The length of time your poinsettia will give you pleasure in your home is dependent on the maturity of the plant when you buy it, and how you treat the plant. With care, poinsettias should retain their beauty for weeks and some varieties will stay attractive for months.

After you have made your poinsettia selection, make sure it is wrapped properly because exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can damage the bracts and leaves.

Unwrap your poinsettia carefully and place it in an indirect light. Six hours of light daily is ideal. Keep the plant from touching cold windows.

Keep poinsettias away from warm or cold drafts from radiators, air registers, open doors, and windows.

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Ideally, poinsettias require daytime temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures of around 55 degrees. High temperatures will shorten the plant’s life. Move the plant to a cooler room at night, if possible.

Check the soil daily. Be sure to punch holes in foil so water can drain into a saucer. Water when soil is dry. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess water. Wilted plants will tend to drop bracts sooner.

Fertilize the poinsettia if you keep it past the holiday season. Apply a houseplant fertilizer once a month. Do not fertilize when it is in bloom.

With good care, a poinsettia will last 6-8 weeks in your home or RV.

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How to keep a Poinsettia alive

Every houseplant—even a hyper-seasonal one—is kept alive somewhere year-round. Poinsettias hail from the mid-elevation regions of Mexico and Central America where they can grow over 10 feet tall as a perennial winter-flowering shrub with milky sap and branches so long they sometimes look like vines.

The big, showy red, white, or pink flowers we’re used to seeing aren’t actually the poinsettia’s flowers at all, but modified leaves called bracts. The flower buds are the small yellow buds in the middle of the colorful bracts.

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When you buy a poinsettia at the grocery store it comes already sporting its brightly colored, fancy bracts. You have no idea how hard it was to get them there. Fritz Bahr, the author of Fritz Bahr’s commercial floriculture: a practical manual for the retail grower (1937), described the delicate and finicky poinsettia thusly: “Perhaps no other plant or flower we handle during Christmas week is more short lived, wilts quicker, or is more disappointing to those who receive it; yet, when the next Christmas comes around, there comes again the same demand for poinsettias and the disappointments of a year ago are all forgotten.”

Over time, floriculturists overcame some of these problems but until the mid-1950s, growing poinsettias and getting them into the hands of Christmas revelers in relatively good shape was a real trick. That was, until somebody realized poinsettias need just one thing to turn their green bracts red, pink, or white: total darkness.

In order to induce your poinsettia plant to create flower buds and to change the color of its leaves from green in time for Christmas, it must be kept in complete darkness for 16 hours per day. The witholding of light prevents the plant from producing chlorophyll which is what makes plant parts green. This changes the bracts to red, pink, or white, depending on the variety of poinsettia.

So, somewhere around September 21—right around the fall equinox—pull your poinsettia out of its sunny window and move it into 16 hours of uninterrupted darkness (put the plant under a box if necessary to provide total darkness), alternating with 8 hours of bright light every day.

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During the dark period, the plant cannot receive even the slightest bit of light at any time. This applies to your year-old poinsettia as well: If you want your plant to produce flower buds again and to change color, it’s the daily length of complete darkness, not bright daylight that matters most. Discontinue this around Thanksgiving.

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After Thanksgiving, keep your poinsettia in bright light or the full sun of a sunny window, not keeping the potting soil moist or adding excess water but watering it when the well-drained soil is dry to the touch. Poinsettias prefer temperatures around or above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. They will bloom from Christmas until about April—at this point, it’s a good idea to cut your poinsettia down to a 3- to 8-inch stem and let it regrow starting the process over again until the next year.

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Are Poinsettias poisonous to pets and children?

One common urban legend about poinsettias is that they’re toxic to people and animals. One Ohio State University study showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat over 1 pound of poinsettia leaves—between 500 and 600 leaves—for toxicity to become a problem. However, they certainly don’t taste very good and the child who ate them would probably get a terrible tummy ache long before they were poisoned.

The milky sap of the poinsettia is another matter. Most members of the Euphorbia family have toxic sap but the toxin in poinsettias is very mild. However, those with sensitive skin should avoid touching poinsettia sap, just in case.

Worth Pondering…

Flowers are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities in the world.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Story of the Poinsettia

Today (December 12th) is National Poinsettia Day in honor the late Joel Roberts Poinsett who was largely responsible for the poinsettia’s association with Christmas

There are certain plants that play important and often mysterious roles in holiday traditions and celebrations all over the world. From the Egyptians who decorated trees during the winter solstice to the Pagans and Druids who used mistletoe in their winter customs, stories abound of plants that have become infused into the mythologies of cultures and regions.

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The long, strange tale of the Poinsettia

The poinsettia’s story is just as unique as the rest. Despite this celebrated plant’s prominence during the holiday season, its story remains largely unknown—until now.

The story of the poinsettia is one that spans hundreds of years and contains countless twists and turns as it wound its way into our holiday traditions. Although it doesn’t pre-date Christianity like its Christmas counterparts, the holiday season wouldn’t be the same without the reds and greens of the poinsettia.

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Cuetlaxochitl: the origin of the Poinsettia

To begin, we go back to 14th century Mexico. The plant had a long history of medicinal use. It was said that its milky white sap, called latex, could be used to reduce fever symptoms. The plant was so highly prized in an Aztec culture that “Cuetlaxochitl,” as the plant was known, was also used to create red and purple dyes for clothing and textiles.

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These wild Mexican plants were 12 to 15 feet tall with only 1 or 2 stems. The red floral bracts were quite narrow and droopy as compared with those of modern poinsettias and they had large open centers.

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It is said that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was so captivated by the plant that he would have caravans of poinsettias shipped to the capital city of Teotihuacan because the plants could not grow at the high altitude.

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However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Cuetlaxochitl, now an established decorative plant in Mexican tradition, began its journey into Christmas traditions.

This part of the journey began in the small town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico where Franciscan monks began using the shrub in their Nativity processions. Coincidentally, it is also around this time that the Mexican legend of Pepita and the “Flowers of the Holy Night” began, forever tying the red and green shrub to Christmas folklore.

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Pepita and the Poinsettia

According to legend, a young girl named Pepita was traveling to her village to visit the Nativity scene at the chapel. Since Pepita did not have enough money to buy a present to give the baby Jesus at the services, she gathered a bundle of roadside weeds and formed a bouquet.

Upon entering the chapel and presenting her bouquet to the Nativity Jesus, the bouquet of roadside weeds miraculously turned into a bouquet of beautiful red flowers that the locals knew as Cuetlaxochitl.

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The namesake of the Poinsettia

During this time, the poinsettia’s association with Christmas was almost entirely confined to small Mexican towns and their local folklore. It remained relatively obscure for almost two hundred years before a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851) introduced it to the United States. This introduction forever changed the way we decorate for the holidays.

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Joel Roberts Poinsett was a man of many talents. He was not only the first person to introduce poinsettia to the United States, but he was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and was also a skilled and passionate botanist who co-founded the institution that we now call the Smithsonian Institute.

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In the winter of 1828, Poinsett took a diplomatic trip to Mexico on behalf of President John Quincy Adams. He visited the Taxco area where he wandered the beautiful countryside and became enchanted by the brilliant red leaves of an unfamiliar plant. Poinsett kept a greenhouse on his property in South Carolina and began shipping the blooms back to his home. There, he studied and carefully cultivated the plants.

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It wasn’t long before he began sharing the plants among his friends and colleagues around Christmas time. This was when the upper leaves of the shrub would turn red. The reputation of the enchanting Christmas plants spread and soon a Pennsylvania nurseryman by the name of Robert Buist began to cultivate poinsettias. Buist would be the first to sell the plant to the public under its botanical name of Euphorbia Pulcherrima. He also played a large role in helping to establish the plant’s Christmas reputation.

It wasn’t until about 1836 that the plant formally attained its popular name of “Poinsettia” after the man who first brought the plant to the U. S. and ignited a holiday tradition that continues to this day.

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A national phenomenon

In the early 1900s, poinsettia began to gain popularity. Paul Ecke Sr. developed the first poinsettia plants that could be grown indoors. He began selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, California. In 1923, he founded the Ecke Ranch that today provides nearly 80 percent of the plants that are bought and sold in the country.

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Today, the poinsettia is the most popular plant sold during the holidays and the best-selling potted plant in the U. S. Within a six-week period leading up to Christmas, there are over 70 million poinsettias sold and nearly $250 million in poinsettia sales accounted for.

In July of 2002, the United States Congress named December 12th National Poinsettia Day. The day honors the late Joel Roberts Poinsett who played a crucial role in making the poinsettia into the holiday fixture that it is today.

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Poinsettia Flower Anatomy

Poinsettias belong to the same family as Castor-Beans, the Spurge or Euphorbia Family, in which flowers are unisexual. Besides that, Poinsettia flowers differ in several important ways from the average flower features.

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In Poinsettia flowers the large, red, eye-catching things at the ends of branches are not flower petals but rather modified leaves called bracts. Because actual Poinsettia flowers are small and inconspicuous, the red bracts take over the job of attracting pollinators.

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The greenish, cuplike thing labeled “cyathium” is a structure unique to the Poinsettia’s genus Euphorbia. In each cyathium usually, there are several male flowers but only one female, and that female is attached to the cyathium’s center. However, the cyathium is too small to accommodate the males and the much larger female flower, so the female flower does something extraordinary: She sits atop a stemlike pedicel which grows so long that it bears the female ovary completely outside the cyathiume. There the female flower is labeled “pistillate flower” because she consists of nothing but the pistil (stigma, style, and ovary).

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Selecting a Poinsettia

Plant breeders have produced cultivars with many other colors besides the traditional red bracts or modified leaves. There are over 100 varieties of Poinsettias available. Though once only available in red, Poinsettias are now available in pink, white, yellow, peach, purple, salmon, marbled, and speckled. They have names like Premium Picasso, Monet Twilight, Shimmer, and Surprise.

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Consider the following tips to ensure long-lasting beauty:

  • Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored bracts
  • Select plants with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage all the way down the stem; the leaves and bracts should not be drooping
  • Look for plants that are balanced, full, and attractive from all sides
  • Select durable plants with stiff stems, good bract and leaf retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking, or drooping
  • Choose plants with the yellow flowers in the center that are not quite open
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Poinsettia care

To help your poinsettia thrive in your home during the holiday season, follow these tips:

  • Light: Set your poinsettia in a bright location so that it receives at least 6 hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Putting it in direct sunlight may fade the color of the bracts. If the direct sun cannot be avoided, filter the sunlight with a light shade or sheer curtain.
  • Temperature: Excess heat will cause the leaves to yellow and fall off and the flower bracts to fade early. The daytime temperature should not exceed 70 °F. Do not put your poinsettia near drafts, excessive heat, or dry air from ventilating ducts. Chilling injury is also a problem and can cause premature leaf drop if the temperature drops below 50 °F.
  • Water & Fertilizer: Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water them thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Never let the potting mixture completely dry out and never let the plant sit in standing water. When watering, always take the plant out of its decorative pot cover. Water until water seeps out of the drainage hole and the soil is completely saturated.
Poinsettia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Flowers are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities in the world.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson