What's in a Name?
- Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Botanically, the plant is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.
- In Nahuatl , the language of the Aztecs, the Poinsettia was called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, for residue, and xochitl, for flower), meaning "flower that grows in residues or soil."
- Today the plant is known in Mexico and Guatemala as ""La Flor de la Nochebuena" (Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve).
- In Chile and Peru, the Poinsettia is called the "Crown of the Andes".
- In Spain the Poinsettia has a different holiday attribution. It is known there as "Flor de Pascua", meaning "Easter flower".
- Poinsettias have also been called the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, due to the red color.
- Poinsettias received their name in the United States in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the country in 1828. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He sent cuttings of the plant he had discovered in Southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. The word Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized because it is named after a person.
Anatomy of a Poinsettia
- The showy colored parts of Poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The yellow flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
- Many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family ooze a milky sap. Some people with latex allergies have had a skin reaction (most likely to the sap) after touching the leaves.
- Despite rumors to the contrary, Poinsettias are not poisonous. A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than a pound-and-a-quarter of Poinsettia leaves (500 to 600 leaves) to have any side effects. The most common side effects that have been reported from Poinsettia ingestions are upset stomach and vomiting. The leaves are reportedly not very tasty, so it's highly unlikely that kids or even pets would be able to eat that many! But be aware that the leaves can still be a choking hazard for children and pets.
- In nature, Poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that were once considered weeds.
- Poinsettias are not frost-tolerant. They will grow outdoors in temperate coastal climates, such as Southern California beach communities. In the ground, they can reach 10 feet tall.
- The colors of the bracts are created through "photoperiodism", meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. On the other hand, once Poinsettias finish that process, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
Great Moments in Poinsettia History
- Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They are found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. They are also found in the interior of Mexico in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Gurerro and Oxaca.
- December 12th is Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.
- In Mexico, the Poinsettia is displayed in celebration of the "Dia de la Virgen", which is also coincidentally, December 12th.
- The Aztecs used the Poinsettia bracts to make a reddish purple dye for fabrics, and used the sap medicinally to control fevers.
- Montezuma, the last of the Aztec Kings, had Poinsettias delivered to him by caravan to what is now Mexico City, because Poinsettias could not be grown in the high altitude.
- Paul Ecke Jr. is considered the father of the Poinsettia industry due to his discovery of a technique which caused seedlings to branch. This technique allowed the Poinsettia industry to flourish. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and about 50% of the world-wide sales of Poinsettias. As of August 2012, the Ecke Ranch, which was family-owned and operated for nearly 100 years, announced that it had been acquired by the Dutch-based Agribio Group.
- The Ecke family had a secret technique that caused every seedling to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. In 1991, a university graduate student published an article that described a method for causing Poinsettias to branch. With the secret out and available to everyone, competition flourished, especially from Europe, resulting in a decrease of Ecke's share of the market.
- An NCAA college football bowl game in San Diego is named the Poinsettia Bowl. The first bowl was played in December of 1952 and was created as a military services championship game, with the Western and Eastern military services champions competing against each other.
Poinsettias By the Numbers
- There are over 100 varieties of Poinsettias available. Though once only available in red, there are now Poinsettias in pink, white, yellow, purple, salmon, and multi-colors. They have names like 'Premium Picasso', 'Monet Twilight', 'Shimmer', and 'Surprise'.
- The red Poinsettia still dominates over other color options. 'Prestige Red'--one of many poinsettias patented by Ecke--ranks among the best-selling hybrids.
- Poinsettias contribute over $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level.
- California is the top U.S. Poinsettia-producing state.
- Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada.
- Poinsettias are the most popular Christmas plant. Most Poinsettias are sold within a six-week period leading up to that holiday, representing some $60 million worth.
- It is estimated that women account for 80% of Poinsettia sales.
- The most common question people have about Poinsettias is how to get them to rebloom in successive years.
Updated by Erica D. Seltzer and MaryAnne Spinner, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners