The History and Legend of the Poinsettia

Joel Robert Poinsett, who was an amateur botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico, first introduced poinsettias to the United States in 1825. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. An official day set aside to enjoy this symbol of holiday cheer. It was established upon the death of Mr. Poinsett to honour him and the pant he made famous. He died in 1851.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico, where they grow wild. The enchanting legend of the poinsettia dates back several centuries, to a Christmas Eve in Mexico when a little girl named Pepita had no gift to present to the Christ child. Her cousin Pedro urged her to give a humble gift. So on her way to church she gathered some weeds she found along the road. As she approached the altar, a miracle happened. The weeds blossomed into brilliant flowers. Then they were called Flores de Noche Buena – Flowers of the Holy Night. Now they are called poinsettias.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia Pulcherrima) fill our homes with holiday cheer, but when the Christmas decorations get packed away, the plants sadly tend to go too. Some folks have no problem sending the festive beauty directly to the compost bin. Others treat it like a regular houseplant until the colourful leaves drop off in the spring. But a select few will hold onto their poinsettias with visions of re blooming the pretty plants for next Christmas.

If you would like to try keeping your poinsettia alive and well long after this years holiday season, there are a few things you need to know. Poinsettias are short day plants. That means they start the blooming process when the hours of darkness exceed the hours of daylight. In this part of the country (Ontario) that time of the year is around Sept. 23rd. To re bloom your existing poinsettia by Christmas, you need to expose it to natural day lengths from that point on – because excess light delays blooming (and the turning of the green bracts to red).

Avoiding extra light might sound easy, but remember, it starts to get dark earlier and earlier come fall and you probably don’t want to turn the lights off in your house at 5:30 pm. You might try keeping the plant in a separate room that gets adequate daylight but can be darkened as night falls. If that’s not an option, you can move your plant in and out of a closet daily or cover your poinsettia with a box when the sun sets and you turn the lights on. Just don’t forget to bring your plant back into the light come morning! Poinsettias need at least six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily.

While proper lighting is the key element to re blooming your poinsettia, there are a few more things you need to do to maintain a healthy plant throughout the year. In the late spring cut the branches back to about 8 inches. Then continue to water your poinsettia as needed and fertilize it with a well balanced all-purpose feed. In July, if your plants become “leggy” or too big, pinch them back to ensure compact growth. Pinching removes the end of the branch and encourages more flowers. Just be sure to leave four to six leaves on every branch you pinch.

Although they’ve become a winter holiday plant tradition, remember that poinsettias are sensitive to cold injury. They are happiest with a night temperature range from 60-70 degrees F. Finally, if you poinsettia doesn’t manage to colour up by Christmas (due to improper lighting), don’t give up on it just yet. It will most likely change eventually, but you might want to purchase some new ones for holiday décor. And you know what that means…. more poinsettia growing later.

Facts

· Despite a persistent myth to the contrary, toxicity tests have shown that no part of the poinsettia plant is poisonous to humans or pets.
· As with any non- food product, the poinsettia is not meant to be eaten and can cause varying degrees of discomfort. Therefore the plant should be kept out of the reach of young children and curious pets.
· The flower of the poinsettia is actually its yellow center. The red “petals” surrounding those flowers are modified leaves called bracts.

Tips and Care

· Poinsettias don’t like “wet feet.” Allow the soil to become dry to the touch between watering. Too much water can cause root rot, which can kill the plant. When the surface is dry to the touch, water thoroughly. Discard excess water in the saucer.
· To prolong colour, keep a temperature range of 60 degrees for night and 72 degrees for day. High humidity is preferable.
· Place plant away from hot or cold drafts and protect from cold winds.
· Unless you are truly dedicated to the re blooming process, horticulturists generally recommend enjoying a poinsettia indoors for several months after the holidays. Then either compost it or plant it outdoors to grow as a green shrub through the summer.

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