Poinsettia has become the archetypal Christmas house plant. Its cheery red flowers are a common festive season sight in homes, garden centres and supermarkets across the UK. One recent estimate suggested that six million poinsettias are bought here every Christmas.Buy Poinsettia Here!
The flowers do not have petals, and the showy bright red for which the plant is famous is provided by the modified leaves (bracts) that surround the inconspicuous true flowers. These robust leafy bracts are longer lasting than typical flower petals, and they can provide a colourful display for up to three months.
Poinsettia was first taken from its native tropical deciduous forests in Mexico to the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the country’s first Minister of State to Mexico. A German immigrant to the US called Albert Ecke began selling them as potted plants from street stands in the early 1900s. When his grandson inherited the family business, he recognised poinsettia’s potential as a Christmas decoration. Through the introduction of techniques such as day-length control and the use of dwarfing compounds, the company started to produce consistent, high-quality plants on an industrial scale.
With clever marketing, including prominent roles in Hollywood movies, poinsettias soon developed a fashionable fan base. Many Christmas connections were conceived, such as the suggestion that the star-shaped pattern created by the leaves symbolised the star of Bethlehem. Thanks initially to these US exports, poinsettias have been used as Christmas ornaments in the UK and elsewhere in Europe for nearly a hundred years. While the secrets of the poinsettia trade were replicated in many countries around the world in later decades, the Ecke business is said to still supply nearly half of all of the poinsettia plants sold around the world.
In fact, the poinsettia’s connection with Christmas had started many years earlier in its native Mexico, where a legend relates that a poor Mexican boy, unable to afford a gift to take to church, collected the colourful red weeds as his Christmas offering.
Poinsettia is a member of the 7500-strong Euphorbia family, and its Latin name ‘pulcherrima’ translates roughly as the most beautiful of all. In common with most spurges, poinsettia sap and latex is toxic and can cause a mild allergic reaction in sensitive people. If ingested in quantity, it can cause diarrhoea or vomiting, and it can lead to temporary sight problems if it splashes into the eye.
This article gives advice on getting the most out of a Christmas poinsettia.