Extension Educator, Horticulture
The winter holiday season is incomplete without the bright red of poinsettias. Except for Easter lilies, few plants are as closely associated with a holiday as poinsettias. Joseph Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800's was responsible for introducing the poinsettia to the United States. While he hiked the hills of Mexico, he admired a large shrub with vibrant red bracts that appeared during the Advent season. What a coincidence he would find a plant that shares his name! Actually the Aztecs called poinsettias the more linguistically challenging name of "cuetlaxochitl". As the plant's popularity grew it was named poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett.
In the early 1900's the Ecke family of southern California grew poinsettias for use as landscape plants and as cut flowers. Eventually the family grew poinsettias in greenhouses and today is recognized as the leading producer. The plant should probably be called Eckia considering how much the Ecke family has progressed and promoted poinsettias.
Over one hundred cultivars of poinsettias are available in colors well beyond red such as white (cream), pink, maroon and combinations of pink, red and white. I enjoy the tight clustered flowers of the Christmas rose. The showy colored parts of poinsettias are not actually flowers but are colored bracts (modified leaves). The small yellow flowers or cyathia of the poinsettia are in the center of the colorful bracts. A fresh, long lasting poinsettia is one in which the true flowers are plump with little or no yellow pollen visible.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are part of the Euphorbiaceae family. Many plants in this family ooze a milky sap when leaves or branches are broken. Some people may develop skin irritation from direct exposure to the milky sap.
Poinsettias are not as poisonous as is often reported, although ingestion of leaves could cause an upset stomach if consumed in large enough quantities. Of course is there anything that doesn't cause an upset stomach when consumed in large quantities? For decades, the poisonous personality of poinsettias has continued to circulate because of one unfounded story in 1919: that an Army officer's two year old child allegedly died after eating a poinsettia leaf. The incident was later determined to be hearsay but the story took on a life of its own. For many years the defenders of the poinsettia have pulled out all the scientific stops to allay public fears.
A study at Ohio State University concluded a 50 pound child who ate 500 bracts might have a slight tummy ache. However before you get out your salad dressing, all ornamental plants including poinsettias should not be eaten nor should animals be allowed to eat plants not grown as edibles.
Basic guidelines to keep your poinsettias happy:
For more information about poinsettias, check out http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia