The poinsettia: history and care


By Terry Schaaf
PREVIEW Columnist
They come in deep reds, light pinks, ivory and even purple. They have dark leaves, light leaves, bi-color leaves and curly leaves. They are the focal point of our holiday home decor, provide the perfect gift for the holiday host and adorn church altars. The poinsettia hasn’t always been a holiday tradition, but today, they are sometimes called the Christmas flower.
The poinsettia, euphorbia pulcherrima willd., is a member of the family euphorbiaceae. The brightly colored bracts (modified leaves) of the poinsettia are often called flowers. But the true flowers of the poinsettia are very small and found in the center of the colorful bracts.
History of poinsettias
The poinsettia is a native plant of Mexico and originated in a rather limited region near present day Taxco. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Aztecs of central Mexico cultivated the plant and called it Cuetlaxochitl. Because of its brilliant color, the poinsettia was a symbol of purity to the Indians. It was highly prized by both King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, but because of the high-altitude climate, the plant could not be grown in their capital, now known as Mexico City. The Indians used poinsettia bracts to make a reddish-purple dye. They also made a medicine for fever from the plant’s latex.
During the 17th century, a group of Franciscan priests settled near Taxco. They began to use the poinsettia in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a native procession. Juan Balme, a botanist of the same period, mentioned the poinsettia plant in his writings. He described it as having large green leaves and a small flower surrounded by bracts, almost as if for protection. The bracts, he said, turned a brilliant red. Balme also found the plant flourishing on the slopes and in the valleys near Cuernavaca.
Poinsettias were first introduced in the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett. While serving as the first United States ambassador to Mexico, he visited Taxco and found the flowers growing on the adjacent hillsides. Poinsett, a botanist of great ability, had some plants sent to his home in Greenville, S.C. They did well in his greenhouse and he distributed plants to botanical gardens and to horticultural friends, including John Bartram of Philadelphia. Bartram, in turn, supplied the plant to Robert Buist, a nurseryman who first sold the plant as euphorbia pulcherrima willd. The name poinsettia, however, has remained the accepted name in English-speaking countries.
The modern era of poinsettia culture began with the introduction of the seedling cultivar oak leaf. This cultivar was reported to have been grown originally in Jersey City, N.J., by a Mrs. Enteman in 1923. From 1923 until the early 1960s, all of the principal cultivars of commercial importance were selections or sports from this original oak leaf seedling.
During the middle 1950s, poinsettia breeding programs were initiated at several institutions. With the introduction of the cultivar Paul Mikkelsen in 1963, poinsettias entered a new era. This cultivar, with stiff stems and foliage retention characteristics, provided the trade with the first longer-lasting cultivar of commercial importance. Annette Heggä Red was introduced in Norway in 1964. This cultivar was quickly followed by a number of sports. The Hegg cultivars introduced an entirely new type of multi-flowered plant to the trade because of their ability to produce from five to eight blooms from a pinch, and because of their ease of production.
Many more cultivars have been developed since that initial introduction. Today, poinsettias may be found in many different colors, as well as product forms from mini poinsettias to large specimen trees and every size in between. Testifying to its success and popularity, the poinsettia is not only the most popular holiday flower, it is the No. 1 flowering potted plant in the United States with over 65 million plants sold nationwide in 2000.
Care of poinsettias after Christmas
When kept in an ideal environment, poinsettias will hold their brightly colored bracts for months. In fact, newer poinsettia varieties have been bred to hold bracts on the plants for a longer “shelf life.” With the poinsettias still looking good after the holidays, the big question for homeowners is whether to trash the poinsettia or keep it for next year.
Homeowners may choose to keep the poinsettia while the bracts remain colorful or just trash it after the holidays. For homeowners who are up for a real challenge, they may even attempt to rebloom their poinsettias for next Christmas.
Either way, poinsettias kept after the holidays will require attention on a regular basis. First, the poinsettia should be moved to an area where it will receive at least six hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Then, check the poinsettia periodically to make sure the plant has adequate water. Remove any decorative pot covers at each watering to prevent over watering.
Around the middle of April, pinch the poinsettia back to 6 to 8 inches in height and leave it growing in a sunny location. When new growth begins, a liquid houseplant fertilizer may be used. Once nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees F, the plant can be placed outside. Start by placing the poinsettia in a shady spot for a few days, gradually increasing its exposure to sunlight until it becomes acclimated to full sun. At this time, the poinsettia should be repotted into a slightly larger container.
Poinsettias that are grown for Christmas flowering should not be pinched (pruned) after Sept. 1. When the temperatures become cool (55 to 60 degrees) bring the poinsettia back indoors and place in a sunny location. Poinsettias require short day lengths to bloom, which means it needs a continuous long dark period each night to form its colorful bracts.
Starting around the first week of October (for an eight- to 10-week period), the plant must be kept in total and uninterrupted darkness for 14 continuous hours each night. During this time, the plant must also receive six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily.
Information for this article was taken from “Poinsettia: The Christmas Flower,” written for The American Phytopathological Society, and “What Do You Do With a Poinsettia After the Holidays Are Over?,” written by Millie Davenport of Clemson Cooperative Extension.
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