In the depths of winter, particularly during the holiday season, the poinsettia is certainly a welcome plant for decorating our homes, our workplaces and our public areas. They colourize our home and in doing so warm our hearts and soul.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia Pulcherrim, also known as Zack Wood or Noche Buena), are surely a welcome gift when visiting friends, and colleagues as it is a gift that keeps on giving.
Did you know that it is indigenous to Mexico and Central America? The species is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forests at moderate elevations ranging from southern Sinaloa on the Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. That’s right; it became known as poinsettia after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico introduced this plant into the United States in 1825. Presently in United States December 12 is considered a National Poinsettia Day. Poinsettias have also been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s when it was brought from Mexico during the Egyptian campaign by none other than that same U.S. Ambassador. In Egypt the plant is called Bent El Consul (the consul’s daughter) in reference to Joel Poinsett.
Poinsettias also do well in subtropical climates such as the coast North of Sidney in Australia. It is also called the Ataturk flower in Turkey. In Chile and Peru, the plant is known as “Crown of the Andes”. In Spain it is referred to as “Flor de Pascua”, meaning “Easter flower.”
In the Aztecs language of Nahuatl, the plant was called Cuitlaxochitl (the literal meaning being, “the flower that grows in residues or soil.”). The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and also as an antipyretic medication. Today the plant is known in Mexico and Guatemala as the “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve. The plant’s connection with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where according to folklore there once was a young girl who was too impoverished to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Her heart being so pure, her prayers were answered one night when an angel came to her and told her to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Shortly after crimson coloured “blossoms” appeared on the weeds and became what we know it as today; a beautiful poinsettia. Because the star-shaped leaf pattern is said to represent the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour signify the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus, Franciscan friars in Mexico, from 17th century onward, included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.
Now let us learn a bit more about The Poinsettia:
First of all it is a shrub or a small tree, typically reaching a height of 1 to 6 m (2 to 16 ft.). It bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 7 to 16 cm (3 to 6 inches) in length, and there are 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia available.
The coloured bracts range in colour from flaming red to pink, cream, white, marble, pastel yellow, orange or pale green. Many mistake these for flowers but they are actually leaves. These brightly coloured leaves, or bracts, have developed because the flowers themselves are unassuming and therefore do not attract pollinators. These bracts are grouped around the small yellow structures, called cyathia, found in the center of each leaf bunch.
The colours arise from Photoperiodism, meaning that for these fantastic colours to manifest, the plant must be left in complete darkness for 12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row. At the same time the plants need a lot of light during the daylight hours.
Now outside its natural environment, it is commonly grown as an indoor plant. It thrives best when it receives the morning sun and is moved into the shade during the hotter part of the day.
The reason many of us choose to buy poinsettias annually, even though the previous year’s ones may still be around, is that the poinsettia needs painstaking care to induce it to flower again. To be truthful, many of us have neither the time nor the patience especially when it is made so readily available for sale throughout the Holiday season.
If you prefer the hard road however, here’s a way:
First, remember that the old plant requires a period of uninterrupted, long dark nights for around two months prior to December for it to develop flowers. Even incidental light at night during this time will hamper flower production. It is important to allow the plant to drain out any excess water as sitting in water can do irreparable harm to the Poinsettia. It prefers moist soil to direct water. In order to produce extra axillary buds that are necessary for plants containing multiple flowers, a phytoplasma infection (whose symptoms include the proliferation of axillary buds) is used.
Here are some steps to take (from the moment you bring it home) in caring for your Poinsettia:
They are Tropical plants, so being mindful of that, place them where they will receive as much direct sunlight as possible during the day.
To maintain the blooms for as long as possible the poinsettia must be kept at temperature of 65-75 degrees F. (60 degree F at night-time is acceptable). Never keep the plant in drafts or have it subjected to extreme shifts in temperature, because it damages the plant. And certainly avoid having its leaves touch a cold window, as this would cause premature leaf drop.
Water it only when the surface feels dry to the touch. Water it until it drains out the bottom, however, never let the plant sit in water. This is another common cause of leaf drop.
After the holidays, from January to March keep on watering the plant whenever the surface runs dry. After April 1st, you may gradually decrease water, allowing the soil to get completely dry between watering. Be wary of the stem, lest it begins to shrivel. This is an indication that the plant is in trouble or dying. Once the plant is acclimated to this sort of drying process, move it to cool spot such as the basement or a heated garage. The temperature must be maintained at about 60 degrees F. In the month of May you may cut the stems back about four inches and re-pot it in a slightly larger container with new potting soil. Water it well, then place it back by the brightest window to maintain the temperature between 65-75 degrees F. Continue watering it and watch for new growth. As soon as it buds you must fertilize it every two weeks. In June you may move the poinsettia outside, pot and all. Keep it in partially shaded location and continue with the watering and fertilizer. In early July pinch back each stem by about one inch to encourage a sturdy, well branched plant. Mid August, once again pinch or cut the new stems, leaving 3-4 leaves on each shoot. Bring the plant back indoors and back to the brightest spot. Continue with watering and fertilizing. In September, make sure the temperature stays above 65 degrees F. Poinsettia buds are affected by the length of daylight. To re-bloom they need 10 weeks with 12 hours or less of sunlight per day. You may need to artificially create these idealistic conditions with due diligence. Starting from October 1st place the plant in complete darkness from 5pm to 8am. Any exposure to light will delay blooming. During the day you must move the plant back into the sunlight. Meanwhile, continue watering and fertilizing. In the last week of November you may cease the darkness treatment and allow the plant to remain in the window. You should be seeing flower buds by this time. December 15 is about the time you can finally stop fertilizing. Maintain watering and treat the plant the way you did when you first brought it into your home.
Wow, what a lot of trouble; you still want to do it? Good luck then.
Finally, it is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. This sort of thinking arose in 1919 because of two year old child dying in United States after consuming a poinsettia leaf. (In fact it would take an estimated 500 bracts for a 50 pound child for it to reach any sort of serious toxicity, but not certainly be fatal.) Now, while the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are considered toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild. Sap introduced to the human eye may cause temporary blindness. Its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individual, can be mildly irritating to skin or stomach and may sometimes cause diarrhoea and vomiting if ingested. But who in their right mind would do that?
Armed with all this knowledge, the next time you see a poinsettia or become the recipient of such a lovely gift, simply admire it.
Once again, happy holidays to you all!