Hello Fellow Readers, Poinsettias are one of the most popular plants to decorate our homes for Christmas. Their history and legend of why poinsettias are known as the Flowers of the Holy Night will fill your heart. I recall the first time seeing them growing outside in Florida while walking the neighborhood with my folks, who had lived there for over 30 years. Poinsettias were as tall as the houses! Christmas brings memories of times gone by. It’s hard to celebrate the glory of the season when those we love are no longer around us. But their love and memories remain forever.
History of Poinsettias
Poinsettias are native to Central America and were used by the Aztecs as a dye and white sap to treat fevers. Joel Roberts Poinsett brought them to this country during his tenure as the first US Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Poinsett admired the brilliant red color and brought plants back from Southern Mexico to propagate them in his South Carolina hothouse. John Bartram of Philadelphia received a plant and then gave it to Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman said to be the first to sell it under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. It wasn’t until 1836 that it became known by its common name of Poinsettia.
How Poinsettias Change Color
I’ll admit poinsettias cause a bit of stress. I feel responsible for keeping them going in hopes of getting them to re-flower the following year, which takes some doing. Did you know the red parts are not flowers? They have modified leaves called bracts. It’s the insignificant yellow bud-like things in the center of the bracts that are the flowers. For the bracts to change color, they require twelve hours of darkness for at least five consecutive days. Once Poinsettias finish their photoperiodic process, they then need lots of light to turn their fullest color.
Invariably I’m given hand-me-down poinsettias, which end up on the fireplace well into February as the leaves begin to dry and drop, and guilt sets in. I remove the withered leaves and turn the plant for the optimum point of view until the “uglies” take over. Then comes a stay in the garage until they are too far gone to resurrect. Poor things.
The Legend of Poinsettias
As the legend goes, Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, was filled with sadness, having no gift for baby Jesus during Christmas Eve services. Her cousin Pedro assured her “that even the most humble gift given with love will be acceptable in His eyes.”
Pepita then gathered a bouquet of weeds. As she reflected on Pedro’s words, her spirits lifted. She knelt to present her modest gift before the nativity scene, and suddenly the weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red. All that witnessed the transformation saw a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.
From that day on, they became known as the “Flores de Noche Buena,” or Flowers of the Holy Night. The lesson – no matter the humbleness of a gift, it is the greatest gift if given in the spirit of love. Christmas blessings to all! Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com (and now on your favorite Podcast App.)
You’ll enjoy another column about the Poinsettia Varieties and the corresponding Podcast:
Other tidbits about poinsettias
- Poinsettias are not highly toxic despite their bad reputation. True, the white sap may irritate sensitive folks’ skin or cause diarrhea or vomiting if eaten (why would you?). Some pets or children may not know better, though the bracts are not tasty. The American Association of Poison Control Centers showed no fatalities in children, and most often, poinsettia eaters don’t require medical treatment. The same is true for cats and dogs, per the Pet Poison Helpline.
- Congress declared December 12th as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate Joel Poinsett’s passing day in 1851. They say it’s a coincidence that December 12th is also the “Dia de la Virgen” (The Day of the Virgin) in Mexico, where poinsettias are on display in celebration.
- In 1840 Mr. Poinsett was a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, said to have formed to obtain the James Smithson endowment, known today as the Smithsonian Institution.
Link to the Pet Poison Helpline
Column updated 12/12/22