Horticulture News: A brief history of poinsettias

By Kim Cowherd, Published:

National Poinsettia Day, Dec. 12, was designated by an Act of Congress in commemoration of amateur botanist and the first Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Poinsett. He introduced the horticultural species of poinsettia to the Americas in 1828.

Poinsett had plants sent to his home in South Carolina from Mexico. He then distributed plants to horticultural friends and botanical gardens. The Ecke family of California has been instrumental in the development of today’s poinsettia.

Poinsettias are a native plant of Mexico. After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, poinsettias began to be used in Christian rituals. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their Nativity processions, hence their use at Christmas.

Research has shown that poinsettias are not poison to humans. One source indicated that a 50-pound child would have to ingest over a pound of leaves to exceed experimental doses that were considered non-toxic. That’s roughly 500 leaves or flower bracts.

Even though they are non-toxic, poinsettias are still considered non-edible. Some individuals may have skin sensitivity to the white milky sap, called latex, which poinsettias bleed when a leaf or flower is injured. A good practice is to put all non-edible materials, including poinsettias, out of reach of children and pets, and to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the plants.


Few plants offer such a vivid display of color. But the brightly colored “flower” structures are not actually the flowers. These are modified leaves called bracts and the collection of bracts on a stem is called an involucre. The actual flowers are present but not showy. To find the flowers look for the yellow, cup-shaped structures, called cyathia, near the center of the involucre.

Within the cyathia are the actual flowers. The flowers are either female, containing a single pistil, or male, containing a single anther. They have no sepals or petals that are the parts that provide the showy color on most flowers. The fact that the attractive part is not a true flower is an advantage. Most flowers are relatively short-lived while the poinsettia bracts are very long lasting and provide a nice decorative plant for the ever-extending holiday season.

You may see blue, purple and poinsettias with glittery bracts on display at local stores. These are painted with a special floral paint and are not the actual color of the “flower.” Some varieties have been bred to naturally produce beautiful mottled colorations. Natural colors of poinsettias range from cream, white, many shades of pink, many shades of red and orange.


Poinsettias are not difficult to keep indoors if you give them the proper care. Give them as much light as possible. Water the plant as needed but don’t over water. When the soil surface is dry to the touch, water with room temperature water until it runs out the drainage hole.

If a saucer or foil wrap is used, discard the water that collects. Do not leave the plant standing in water! Poinsettias prefer day temperatures between 65-70 degrees F, and no cooler than 60 degrees at night. You can fertilize the plant every couple of weeks with houseplant food.

Poinsettias can be “reflowered” for next Christmas, but unless a yearlong schedule of specific care is observed, the results usually are not good. Many of the newer varieties of poinsettias do not respond well to recommended practices of years ago, involving a cycle of forced NATIVE SPECIES

Did you know we actually have a native species of poinsettia, Euphorbia heterophylla, which is sometimes called Fire on the Mountain, Mexican Fire Plant, Wild Poinsettia or Painted Leaf? Some folks call this a wildflower whereas others, particularly peanut farmers in the south, consider it a weed.

It is considered rare in Kentucky and it was thought to be introduced from the tropics although it is considered native according to the USDA Plants and National Wildflower Websites. It is an annual that grows from 1 to 3-feet tall. Like most annuals it has an extended flowering period from May through September and is often found in moist, well-drained soils in full sun.

This is not a species that would be readily available to gardeners and it certainly could become invasive in certain locations like Florida. For you that are outdoors in the summer, when you discover this plant you can think of Christmas in July, which is when this plant would be at its peak.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season! Happy gardening!

Information on Poinsettias can be found on the Internet by logging on to http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1248.html. For more information on Poinsettias, their care, and interesting facts, log on to http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/index.cfm, The Poinsettia Pages by University of Illinois Extension. For information in print, contact the Franklin County Extension Office at 695-9035 or email Kim.Cowherd@uky.edu.

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