While we associate many plants with the winter holidays – think of the mistletoe carefully hung in the doorway, or the tree festooned with lights and ornaments – no holiday season is complete without my favorite, the bright and festive poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).
It is interesting that a plant so closely tied to winter time in this part of the world is actually native to tropical Mexico and Central America. The ancient Aztecs called the poinsettia cuitlaxochitl and in Mexico it's known as Flor de Noche Buena. The word poinsettia is a tribute to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico and budding botanist, who sent the first samples of this plant home to the United States where it soon became popular and was named after him.
While it is still not a good idea to snack on your ornamental plants, poinsettias are not toxic to pets and children, as is often reported. Though the sap may cause skin or mouth irritation, and ingestion could cause nausea, a study conducted by Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to consume over 500 leaves (more than a pound) to show any signs of truly harmful effects. Given the reportedly awful taste of the leaves, it would be hard to imagine consuming that many.
Though most poinsettias are the traditional red, there are also white, creamy pink, burgundy, and even marbled varieties to choose from. The brightly colored "petals" of the poinsettia are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers are small, yellow, and held tightly in the center of the plant.
To choose the longest-lasting poinsettia, look for the following characteristics:
- Choose plants with dark green foliage down to the soil line.
- Be sure the bracts are completely colored and not green around the edges.
- Check for flowers with little or no yellow pollen showing.
- Remember, poinsettias don't like cold weather! When taking your plant home, be sure to cover it when outdoor temperatures are below 50 degrees.
Armed with this knowledge of poinsettias, go out and grab some to add a festive pop of color to the winter holiday season!
For more answers to all of your poinsettia questions, visit the University of Illinois Extension's Poinsettia Pages at http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/