Monday, December 21, 2009

Nature Guide: Poinsettia

Although they haven't been used as Christmas decorations for as long as holly and mistletoe, brilliant red poinsettias are also a popular holiday plant. There are more than a hundred brightly colored varieties, including some that are orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer provides some more information.

"Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a species of flowering plant found in Mexico and Guatemala. Although most of the plants we see grow up to two feet high, in the wild poinsettia grows as a shrub or small tree, sometimes reaching a height of 16 feet. Its colorful bracts, which are modified leaves, are sometimes mistaken for flower petals. But the flower of a poinsettia is actually the small green or yellow blossom found at the center of each group of leaves. Poinsettia also has dark green leaves that are 3 to 6 inches long.

"To keep your poinsettia healthy, it is best to keep it in temperatures of 60° to 70°F during the day. A sunny window works well, but don't let the plant touch a cold windowpane. Keeping it at 55° to 60°F at night will extend its blooming time. Water only when the soil is dry and do not fertilize while the plant is in bloom. Be careful not to break a stem. Poinsettias are not poisonous, but their milky sap can irritate the skin.

"The common name 'poinsettia' comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico. Poinsett was interested in botany and wandered the Mexican countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found this beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He brought cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina and introduced the plant to the US.

"Poinsettia's association with Christmas dates back to colonial Mexico. According to legend, a poor young girl wanted to present a gift to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. She was inspired by an angel to gather weeds and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson 'blossoms' sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. The plants have been included in Christmas celebrations ever since."