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Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are the most popular holiday plant in US households.  It is estimated that over 30 million poinsettias are sold each year around the holiday season, accounting for about one quarter of all flowering houseplants sold in the US, year-round.  That is a staggering statistic, making it the highest-selling potted plant nationwide.  It is so interesting to me that a plant which most of us purchase, enjoy for the holiday season and discard when blooms fade can be so widely sold. 

What has made this plant so ubiquitous to the holidays?  Is it simply the bright red colors contrasted with green foliage?  It’s certainly not their overall hardiness that made them so popular.  Anyone that has ever taken one home can likely attest to their sensitivity to cold and need for constant watering.  In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that plant breeders were able to produce a variety that would bloom for more than a matter of days.

The story of poinsettia’s holiday signature dates back to the 1800’s.  President John Quincy Adams appointed the first ambassador to the newly recognized Republic of Mexico in 1825.  He choose a congressman from South Carolina named Joel Poinsett who was, not only a world traveler, but also an amateur botanist.  As Poinsett fostered our relationship with Mexico, he also explored the natural resources of areas he visited in search of new plant species.  On one such excursion in December of 1828, Poinsett found a beautiful flowering shrub along a roadside south of Mexico City.  He immediately harvested cuttings from the plant to bring back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.  

Poinsett began to study and breed the shrub in his greenhouse, sharing specimens with other horticulturalists, and it soon gained popularity as a holiday plant due its bright red coloration and the timing of its flowering display.  Poinsettias are “short-day” flowering plants, responding to the shortened day length leading up to the holidays with a flower display that coincides perfectly, just like another harbinger of the holidays I discussed in this column last week, the Christmas cactus.  As you might have guessed, the plant was named after Poinsett, as a nod to his early work in breeding and development, and the rest is history. 

There is no doubt that poinsettias are very attractive plants, especially when decked out in holiday garb.  However, the plant structures that most of us think of as poinsettia flower petals are technically bracts, which are modified leaves.  The flower itself, called a cyathium, consists of tiny yellow clustered buds located at the base of the bracts, which are often overlooked for the brilliantly colored red foliage.

When selecting a poinsettia to bring home, it is important to pay attention to the maturity of the tiny flowers.  If yellow pollen is covering the flower structures, then the plant has reached maturity and will not last nearly as long as a plant with underdeveloped flowers.  Poinsettias drop their bracts and leaves soon after flowers shed their pollen.  Therefore, look for plants with flowers that are green or red tipped and showing no signs of yellow pollen production. 

It is also important to take stock of the foliage on the plant.   Choose plants with bracts that are fully colored red and do not have green around the edges.  Wilted leaves indicate a plant that needs water and poinsettias do require pretty consistent soil moisture.  If you notice wilting, check the soil in the pot by sticking your finger in to about the first knuckle.  If the soil seems moist and there are still signs of wilt, this may be an indication of root rot which is common condition that greatly limits the plant’s life.  Make sure you select a plant with a balanced and attractive canopy of leaves.  There should be evenly distributed, dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line.

Poinsettias can offer up to 6 or 8 weeks of attractive foliage with proper care.   Take some time this year to select a promising specimen and you can enjoy weeks of holiday beauty that many Americans have admired since the 1800’s, although indigenous cultures of Mexico have valued these plants for thousands of years.