PHOTO: The “poinsettia house” at the Plant Barn in Chico, where (including the many years under the umbrella of Chico Propagators) poinsettias have been cultivated for a dozen winters or more. Most good nurseries and garden centers will have greenhouse sections dedicated to the plants – to visit the warm, moist greenhouse filled with seasonal color this year is strong therapy for the weary or skeptical.
The winter holidays are upon us ready or not. A week or so ago, late in the day in some dreadful place, I found myself waiting in a line to purchase something I must have needed – and staring at a somewhat out of place poinsettia. I recall thinking: that’s sort of an odd place for a poinsettia, poinsettias ARE a little odd – What is a poinsettia even?
In my childhood, I remember sensing that poinsettias were special, sacred and reserved for winter holiday celebrations. They were ordered from the nursery in advance, wrapped carefully to protect them from cold drafts, and set in places of honor: altars, entries, dinner table centerpieces.
Now – they can seem ubiquitous – native to malls, grocery stores and bank countertops everywhere during the commercial holiday corridor from Halloween to New Year’s day. In our culture’s general overabundance and over-commercialization, poinsettias can almost seem like they aren’t even plants.
Ahhh. A little minor skepticism got to me for a minute there.
I’m glad to tell you that my love of plants, combined with my love of the meanings and stories and feelings behind the holidays that enrich our short dark winter days brought me back around, and sincere curiosity took over. What IS a poinsettia and why ARE they associated with Christmas?
Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia family and like other euphorbias, they have milky sap when you break their stems, they grow like weeds in their native areas and the most attractive aspect of them is not their flowers but their showy bracts – or modified leaves, which turn colors in response to the plant flowering.
Look closely, the poinsettia flowers are really understated little clusters of small yellow green blooms in the center of the sea of colorful bracts. In the case of the most commonly cultivated poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), this bloom time naturally falls in December.
Native to southern Mexico, where they can be weedy, they can also be cultivated as small tropical trees reaching heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across.
The recorded folklore of poinsettias stretches back to the Aztecs, for whom the red color symbolized purity and they used poinsettia leaves to dye fabric and the sap for medicinal purposes such as controlling fevers. In Christian traditions of Mexico and Guatemala, the poinsettia is called (translated) the “Flower of the Holy Night”, and is associated with both the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and with Christmas Eve, when legend has it centuries ago a peasant girl, having nothing else, brought weeds collected from the side of the road to offer at her church altar. As a Christmas miracle, the weeds turned bright red and green before the congregation’s eyes.
The poinsettia is named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, and an amateur botanist who introduced it to the US in 1828, where with time and greenhouse cultivation, it gained acceptance as a holiday plant. While it has been cultivated for many years as a winter specialty plant, it was not until the 1960s that plantsmen bred poinsettias that would hold their bloom (and color) for a long time. Now 100s of varieties of poinsettias in red, white, pink, salmon, and yellow, with double, striped, speckled and wavy forms are available.
Also known as the Christmas Star and Christmas Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Winter Rose, Noche Buena, the poinsettia as a harbinger of the winter holidays is here to stay. Want a little holiday magic and mystery and cheer? Really look at the intricate beauty of a poinsettia near you – with all of the history it carries with it.
Like the winter holidays themselves, there is meaning to be uncovered, cultivated and cherished.
Caring for winter poinsettias are relatively easy to take care of, they will hold their color for a long time if kept damp – not wet – in bright – not direct light. Protect them from large fluctuations in temperature – too hot or too cold.
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In a North State Garden is a twice-monthly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs two weekends a month on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.