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Poinsettias – A Home in Mexico and Dr. Poinsett

Gail Maifeld, Master Gardener

The Poinsettia is a weed in its native Mexico. It is called lobster plant or Mexican Flame Leaf and has become an essential part of North America’s Christmas décor.

Poinsettias – A Home in Mexico and Dr. Poinsett

The poinsettia that adorns mantles, coffee tables, and bookcases across North America is a descendant of a 6-foot shrub from which growers in Scandinavia and California developed the scaled-down varieties that bloom indoors.

All poinsettias are winter-flowering shrubs that are noted for the bright red bracts or leaves. Modern plants have bracts that measure 12-15 inches with green leaves. The real flowers are the insignificant, greenish-yellow center clusters. Today plants can be purchased in many colors from white, peppermint (red & white,) pink and others.

Keep a Poinsettia at normal room temperature (60-80 degrees) in a bright filtered location such as opposite light filtering blinds. Water only when the foliage droops slightly: the potting soil should then be totally saturated. No fertilization is necessary. Most individuals discard the plant soon after the holidays but with care you can have bright red bracts until April. Some enthusiasts will attempt to follow the strict schedule of taking cuttings or allow the cut back stump to develop new growth.

Commercial producers follow a strict routine that is difficult for the home grower to mimic. Poinsettias are short-day plants; the flower and bract formation is prompted by an eight-week period of 14 hours total uninterrupted darkness and 10 hours of light daily. Plants are treated with a dwarfing chemical that reduces stem length, which results in the Poinsettia plant we know today. Poinsettias are readily available so this procedure is not needed to enjoy this beautiful plant.

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola tells the story of a young Mexican girl who had nothing for the manger scene on Christmas Eve. She picked tall green weeds to place around the stable and as the congregation prayed bright red star flowers burst open on the weed tips, casting a warm glow around the manger scene. The people named the plant la Flor de Nochebuena or Flower of the Holy Night. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico from 1825-1830, brought the shrub to the United States in 1830 because the bright red leaves, which he thought to be the flower, fascinated him. He took cuttings from shrubs growing near his Mexican residence to his home in South Carolina. The plant was named for Dr. Poinsett as the Poinsettia. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a bright red Poinsettia. Remember to thank Dr. Poinsett for this cheerful holiday plant! For more details on caring for poinsettia, visit this UMN Extension link.

Additional sources:

Tomie dePaola. The Legend of the Poinsettia. G.P. Putmans & Sons, 1994.

Huxley Anthony, Editor. Success with House Plants, Readers Digest,1979.

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