Poinsettia is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Christmas season. Part of the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family, it is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “beautiful flower.”
While this perennial shrub has become the number one potted plant across the United States, how much do you really know about it? Check out these seven things you should know about poinsettia. You might never look at it in the same way again.
Poinsettia Has Political Connections
In the 1820s, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist, physician, and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant back to his South Carolina estate after he became enamored with its bright red blooms. He propagated the plant and shared it with friends and botanical gardens which grew the popularity of the plant. In the 1830s, the plant was renamed in Joel Roberts Poinsett’s honor.
December 12 is National Poinsettia Day to recognize the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett on December 12, 1851.
It Has Many Names
Its Aztec name cuetlaxochitl means “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.” Mayans called it k’alul wits, or ember flower. Today, Mexicans call it La Flor de Nochebuena or Holy Night Flower.
Other names for this endearing plant are Christmas star, Easter flower, flame-leaf flower, lobster flower, lobster plant, and painted leaf.
Poinsettia Isn’t Always Red and Green
Some of these perennial plants have green leaves with pink, lavender, salmon, orange, cream, or white floral bracts. Others are green with bicolored floral bracts, such as pink and cream. However, blue and purple poinsettias are dyed.
Its Flowers Are Really Leaves
Those “flowers” are actually colored leaves called bracts. They start out green when the plant is growing. But as days grow shorter in winter, they change color. The color transformation also happens when poinsettia is exposed to complete darkness for at least 14 hours daily.
Its true flowers — those clusters of yellow blooms in the middle of the colorful floral bracts — are called cyathia, from the Greek word for “cup.”
It Grows Taller Than You Think
Poinsettias are primarily grown as short houseplants or shrubs in the U.S. But in their native Mexico, where they grow outdoors year-round, they can soar to as high as 15 feet tall.
Poinsettia Is Great for Butterfly Gardens
Monarch butterflies, in particular, love the nectar from those inconspicuous yellow flower clusters. It’s the vibrant bracts that lure these avid pollinators to the true blossoms. Add it to your pollinator or butterfly garden.
It’s No Longer Considered Toxic
Poinsettia still appears on some lists of toxic plants, but it is not as toxic as once thought. However, ingesting too much of it can cause nausea and stomach upset. Also, its milky sap can still cause skin irritation, especially for people with latex allergies. It’s best to keep children and pets away from it.
Aztecs Used It for Medicine and Dyes
They used the milky white sap to help women boost milk production for nursing. It was also used as a fever remedy, to treat skin infections, and as a depilatory. The Aztecs also extracted a reddish-purple dye from the vibrant red leaves to use in their textiles and cosmetics.
It Has a Long Christian Connection
Poinsettias were first included in Christian celebrations in the 17th century. In Southern Mexico, Franciscan priests decorated pesebre — which are nativity scenes — with the plant. In pagan rituals, its red and green colors were linked to Christ’s birth.
Poinsettia Is Linked to a Miracle
According to a Mexican legend, a poor Mexican girl called Pepita was sad because she did not have a gift for the Christ Child during a Christmas Eve service. Her cousin Pedro suggested that even the humblest gift offered with love would be acceptable.
So, she took a handful of weeds, created a bouquet, and placed it at the foot of the altar in the small village chapel. Suddenly, the weeds transformed into brilliant red blossoms. Everyone who saw the flowers believed they had seen a Christmas miracle.
More Than Just a Pretty Flower
The poinsettia has much more going for it than its radiant flowers and bright green foliage. From its symbolism to its diplomatic role and medicinal uses, it has earned a place in your indoor or outdoor garden year-round, not just during the festive season.
What is your favorite fun fact about poinsettias? Share it below in the comments.