The Dark Side of the Poinsettia

by Karin Bueling

The Poinsettia, Euphorbia plurcherrima, which was once thought of as a weed from the Mexican and Central American deserts, has been reinvented as a well known symbol of the Christmas Holiday season. In the warm weather highlands, wooded ravines and rocky hillsides of Central America and Mexico they grew and flourished unknown to many parts of the world.

The plant was first introduced into its holiday popularity by the person it was named after, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820's. Mr. Poinsett, who was also a well known botanist, imported the plant from Mexico in 1829 to his own greenhouse in South Carolina. He was also known as one of the cofounders of The Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, which was a precursor of the Smithsonian Institute. He began propagating and raising the plant fort profit.

Since Poinsetts' time, its popularity has grown to represent annual sales of over 52 million plants nationwide. Retailers prices can range from as little as a few dollars all the way up to a few hundred dollars for the more elaborate arrangements. Considering the fact that poinsettias are only sold for about 1 month out of the entire year, they generate over $200 million annually in wholesale business, and rank among the highest grossing ornamental crop in the United States.

The history on the Poinsettia plant is just about as colorful as the plant itself. It is a plant that is a native of Mexico, specifically a town called Taxco de Alacron. In the southern United States and many other warmer climates, including Mexico, it grows a a shrub. Sometimes up to ten feet tall, blooming outdoors in December just in time for Christmas. In Mexico it was known by its Spanish name of flor de nochebuena, "flower of Christmas Eve." The historical story that tells of the beginning of the plant was that of a poor Mexican girls named Pepita, who along with her brother Pedro, were on their way to church one Christmas Eve. Pepita felt very bad because she didn't have a gift to offer to the alter of the Virgin Mary. Following the instructions of an angel that appeared to her she picked a bouquet of weeds that grew that grew along the roadside. She entered the church and offered her humble gift at the feet of the Christ child. It was at that moment that the weeds burst into brilliant red blooms which were called Flores de Noche Buena, of the Holy Night.

Poinsettias come in a variety of colors. Not only the traditional red, but also creamy white, a pale faded red, streaked red and white, pink, yellow, peach and last but not least white. Poinsettias have ordinary leaves as well as modified leaves called bracts that turn from green to crimson in response to the lengthening nights that indicates the onset of winter. At the center of the radiating bracts lie tiny golden blossoms, which represents the plants' true flowers. The wild varieties grow much taller that their potted relatives. Sometimes as tall as 16 feet. They also have longer and narrower leaves and bracts with foliage that tends to be oak leaf shaped.

As I mentioned earlier the Poinsettias are light-sensitive plants that bloom in response to lengthening times of darkness. To encourage your plant to bloom by Christmas, beginning about late September or no later than October 1, give your plant complete darkness for at least 14 to 16 hours each night. This can be accomplished by covering the plant with a large box, or simply moving it into a dark room, or covering with a black trash bag or black drop cloth. One must be very careful to ensure total darkness. By allowing stray light to filter in or turning on a light accidentally you could interrupt the plant's flowering cycle, delaying or possibly even totally halting the flowering completely. The temperature at night should be between 60 and 70 degrees F. In the daytime the plants should have indirect sunlight. Keep with this schedule for at least 10 weeks and you should start to see the bracts change color. Avoid too much water in the soil by allowing the plant to be properly drained. When you water drain off any excess in the saucer below. the pot.

Each holiday season there is the perennial question , "Is the Poinsettia plant poisonous?" There has never been any medical documentation or scientific evidence to substantiate the poison myth, it has scared people into the misguided belief that if ingested by humans it could be lethal. According to Poisindex R Information Service, which is a service that is used by the poison control centers, a 50 pound child would have to ingest over 500 poinsettia bracts or 1-1/4 pounds to surpass experimental doses. At those levels there wasn't any such toxicity. In addition the American Medical Association reports that there have been no deaths or serious injuries caused by the ingestion of poinsettias.

Last but surely not least, everyone should have a Poinsettia plant in their life at one time or another. No matter if it's a Christmas gift to you from a friend or admirer, or simply a gift to yourself. It can bring a great amount of beauty and pleasure into your life and truly has become a traditional sight at the Christmas holiday season.