Christmas Holiday Poinsettia

December 8, 2007

Plant of the Week

David Rodriguez

Christmas Holiday PoinsettiaEvery holiday season, we hear about this beautiful plant, the Poinsettia. Bexar County Master Gardener Manuel Santos, from the first original class, remembers back to the infancy of The SCION newsletter in 1992. Manuel says, “One of the first articles receiving acclaim and media attention was on the Poinsettia.” The SCION newsletter archives can be viewed at the Texas Cooperative Extension-Bexar County site in color at this link:

To this day the Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, botanically speaking, has never wavered from popularity as a holiday specialty plant. Following The SCION’s first article, many more articles on the Poinsettia were printed, and it has been talked about in the local media outlets by many garden personalities. As we repeat, once again in writing, about this fabulous plant, there is no doubt Poinsettias remain an interesting topic and a welcome attraction in the holiday tradition.

The history and lore of this plant never ceases to amaze the plant lover. In its native habitat it was first cultivated by the Aztec Indians and called “Cuetlaxochitle,” pronounced Quet-lax-o-chi-tel. That’s a mouthful! Back in the fourteenth century, the Aztecs used the sap to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) to make a bright red dye. The last of the Aztec kings, Montezuma, had the Poinsettias brought in caravans to what is now Mexico City, from its native area of Taxco because the plant would not grow in high altitudes.

The Poinsettia was given its name by William Prescott, a horticulturist and historian. In his book, The Conquest of Mexico, he mentioned Joel Robert Poinsett as the man who discovered the plant while serving as the first ambassador to Mexico. He had been appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1825. Poinsett was a gardening enthusiast who brought the plants from South America by ship to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina. They thrived in his greenhouse and were later introduced to countries in Europe. In Europe, poinsettias became a commercial Christmas hit.

The Poinsettia’s botanical name was assigned by German botanist, Carl Ludwig Willdenow. The plant had grown through a crack in his greenhouse. He was so dazzled by its color that he named it Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “beautiful color.”

There has always been a misconception that poinsettias are poisonous. The rationale for this early belief came as a result of a death of a two-year-old, daughter of an American serviceman stationed in Hawaii in 1919. The cause of death was incorrectly assumed to be a Poinsettia leaf. Another reason was the fact that other plants in the genus Euphorbia was (and is!) highly toxic, but the poinsettia is non-toxic. Many studies have been done to dispel this belief.

Poinsettia blooms are the tiny flowers that sometimes appear yellow, pink, peach or speckled in the center of the bracts. The bracts are basically modified leaves at the end or top of the plant that take on a different color than the rest of the plant as the days grow shorter. Today these plants have been hybridized, so that the leaves can be white, salmon, peach, and pink, among other colors. Sometimes poinsettias are even spray painted to form spectacular artistic colors. Manuel and I agree that the natural and traditional reds are the most beautiful!

Millions of poinsettias are grown for domestic use each year in greenhouses in Arizona and California. They are distributed all around the nation during the fall and winter for the holidays. Their likeness appears in Christmas cards and the plants decorate many public establishments to invite and promote the spirit of the Christmas season. Locally, we have great poinsettia growers in our own backyard such as Peterson Brothers, Buell’s Nursery, Green Gates Nursery, Klepac Nursery, and Casa Verde Nursery. They make excellent gifts and are easy to care for. Look for these locally grown poinsettias at a good local nursery near you.

After the season, they can be replanted after the season in a cool dark place where they will perform again for years or outside on a southwest exposure in your landscape. There are many interesting web sites to guide you in the growth and care of the Poinsettia. For example, visit this link at:

Special thanks to Manuel Santos, Bexar County Master Gardener, Class 1, in aiding in this article.

Remember, Learn and Have Fun!

David Rodriguez is County Extension Agent-Horticulture, Bexar County. For more information, call the Master Gardener ‘Hotline’ at (210) 467-6575 or visit our County Extension website at, click under Horticulture and Gardening.

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