By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist
University of Vermont

Are you a trivia buff? If so, perhaps
you’d be interested in knowing a little bit more about
the poinsettia plant you buy every Christmas.

For example, did you know that the poinsettia’s
main attraction is not its flowers, but its leaves?
The flowers of the plant are the yellow clustered buds
in the center. The colored leafy parts are actually
bracts or modified leaves.

Red is the most popular color, accounting
for roughly three-quarters of all sales nationwide,
followed by white and pink. Poinsettias come in a variety
of colors from red, salmon, and apricot to yellow, cream,
and white. There are also unusual speckled or marbled
varieties like “Jingle Bells” and “Candy
Cane” with several colors blended together. New
varieties are introduced yearly with even more variation
in height and colors.

How many poinsettias do you think are
sold in a year?

If you guessed around 60 million, you’d
be in the ballpark. Would you believe that last year
more than 65 million were sold nationwide? Poinsettias
accounted for one-third of sales of all flowering potted
plants. In economic terms, that’s $237 million out of
a total of $781 million in sales of all flowering potted

Although every state in the United States
grows poinsettias commercially, California is the top
producer with about 27 million pots grown, followed
by Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, each with
about 14 million pots.

Did you know that in the wild, the poinsettia
can reach heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six
to eight inches across? It is actually a small tropical
tree belonging to the Euphorbia plant family. Its botanical
name is Euphorbia pulcherrima although in English-speaking
countries it is more commonly known as the poinsettia.
A native of southern Mexico, the poinsettia blooms in
December and has been used in that country to decorate
churches for centuries.

In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries,
the Aztecs used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric
for clothing and the sap for medicinal purposes, including
to help control fevers. They also considered the red
color a symbol of purity, and so poinsettias were traditionally
part of religious ceremonies.

You probably know that Dr. Joel Roberts
Poinsett, an amateur botanist and first United States
ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant that became
known as the poinsettia to this country. He discovered
a shrub with brilliantly colored red leaves growing
by the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico, in December
1828 and sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville,
South Carolina.

But did you know that most botanists at
that time dismissed the poinsettia as a weed? Fortunately,
Poinsett continued to study and breed this plant in
his greenhouse, sharing plants with his horticulturist
friends. It soon gained acceptance as a holiday plant,
despite its very short bloom time. It wasn’t until the
1960s that researchers were able to successfully breed
plants to bloom more than just a few days.

Here’s another bit of interesting trivia.
December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. Never heard
of it? Believe it or not, the United States has observed
this official day since the mid-1800s. It honors the
man and the plant he introduced. Poinsett died Dec.12,

True or False? The poinsettia is a poisonous
plant. If you answered false, you’re correct. The plant
has been tested repeatedly and cleared of this charge
by the National Poison Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and
the American Medical Association. The POINSINDEX Information
Service, the main information resource for poison control
centers across the country, reports that even if a 50-pound
child consumed more than 500 poinsettia bracts–the
amount tested in scientific experiments–the consequences
would not be fatal. Even at this high level, no toxicity
was found.

However, this doesn’t mean that poinsettias
are meant to be eaten. If ingested, this plant can cause
stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children
also may choke on the fibrous parts, so be sure to keep
these plants out of their reach. The sticky white sap
also may cause skin irritation for some people.

Do you know the best way to prolong the
life of this Christmas plant? Avoid hot or cold drafts,
keep the soil moist not soggy, and place in a room with
sufficient natural light and temperatures of around
60 to 70 degrees F. Water when the soil begins to dry.
Once the leaves begin to wilt, it’s too late.

Above all, protect it from exposure to
wind or cold on the way home from the store. Poinsettias
are highly sensitive to cold temperatures and even a
few minutes of exposure to 50-degree F or lower temperatures
will cause them to wilt. But when cared for properly,
poinsettias usually will outlast your desire to keep

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