We all see poinsettias everywhere we go throughout the holidays. They are for sale in pretty much any store you walk into, are a stand-by for school fundraisers, and can be seen in many peoples’ houses over the season. December 12th is even National Poinsettia Day in the United States! Poinsettias have become such a universal symbol for Christmas and winter that many people don’t realize they are actually tropical plants that grow as large shrubs in the wild. With a little care and attention to detail, you can create a stylish poinsettia display that showcases these fiery crimson beauties.
It can be hard to picture poinsettias growing in the wild since we are so used to seeing them as houseplants. The poinsettia plant, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to western Mexico where it grows into a large shrub or small tree.
The large red “petals” are actually bracts and the small yellow centers are the flowers. Colorful bracts and small flowers are also seen on other common flowering shrubs and trees like dogwoods and hydrangeas.
History and Association with Christmas
Ancient Aztecs used the plant as a medicine to reduce fever, and also commonly used it for making a red dye that colored cosmetics and textiles.
It was in the 16th century that the poinsettia became commonly associated with Christmas. The plant’s December blooming time and star-shaped bracts that bring to mind the Star of Bethlehem are probably where the original connection with the holiday came from. There is a Mexican Christmas tale about the origin of the poinsettia that tells the story of a young peasant girl who could not afford a proper offering for her Christmas prayer, so she placed a bundle of weeds on the church altar instead. The weeds began blooming red and turned into beautiful large star-shaped flowers.
In the 19th century, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico and an avid gardener, fell in love with the plants and sent some back to his home in South Carolina, introducing them to the U.S. for the first time. The plant got its common name from Poinsett.
Growing and Care
Begin by purchasing a plant that looks healthy. Choose one that is full and does not have discolored leaves or other signs of disease.
Place poinsettias in a bright room that gets lots of natural light, but keep the plant out of direct sun. Place it somewhere away from drafty windows or heat sources since dramatic changes in temperature can harm the plant. Water only when soil feels dry to the touch. If your poinsettia is healthy, it will flower again next year.
A lot of people avoid having poinsettias in the house because of the fear that they are dangerous to cats and dogs, but the plants are not as poisonous to pets as is commonly thought. They can only cause serious harm if ingested in huge amounts (your furry friend would have to eat hundreds of plants to be in real danger, according to a recent study). They can cause some unpleasant tummy aches, though, so it’s best to keep them out of reach of pets anyway.
Taking a little bit of time to re-pot your poinsettia once you get it home makes a huge difference. Plant it in a decorative ceramic pot, something plain, or even a salad bowl—anything other than leaving it in that shiny foil wrapping it comes in will make it look so much more sophisticated.
You can buy poinsettias in all kinds of colors now, such as blue, rainbow, and even glitter-covered ones, but be aware that if it is not some shade or combination of red and white, it is definitely dyed. Poinsettias are beautiful when left natural, and the less chemicals, the better!
Leave the fake colors and pick a gorgeous natural poinsettia instead. You can find them in fiery red, white, cream, blush, or with stripes!