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The History and Legend of the Poinsettia

The plant we know today as the poinsettia has long and interesting history. Native to Central America, the plant flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The Aztecs used the plant decorative purposes but also put the plant to practical use. They extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics from the plant’s bracts. The milky white sap, today called latex, was made into a preparation to treat fevers.

The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant for many years to come had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) by President Madison. Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but his real love in the scientific field was botany. (Mr. Poinsett later founded the institution which we know today as the Smithsonian Institution).

Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

Among the recipients of Poinsett's work was John Bartram of Philadelphia, who in turn gave the plant over to another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Mr. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. It is thought to have become known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, the origin of the name recognizing the man who first brought the plant to the United States.

Congress honored Joel Poinsett by declaring December 12th as National Poinsettia Day which commemorates the date of his death in 1851. The day was meant to honor Poinsett and encourage people to enjoy the beauty of the popular holiday plant.



A charming story is told of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes," said Pedro consolingly.

Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.

As she approached the altar, she remembered Pedro's kind words: "Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes." She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.


From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season and thus, the legend of the poinsettia was born.








By Susan Davis
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our November-December 2011 issue, we asked Michael Wahl, MD, medical director of the Illinois Poison Center, in Chicago, about the relative risks of eating poinsettia.

Q: I've always heard that poinsettias are poisonous to kids and pets. My husband says that's hogwash. Who's right?

Like the Christmas myths about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and a toy workshop in the North Pole, the belief that poinsettias are poisonous is FALSE.

No one is sure how this myth started, although it's often attributed to the 1919 death of a girl whose parents thought she had eaten poinsettia leaves. The truth is, a kid would have to eat about 500 poinsettia leaves to get sick.

"There haven't been any deaths reported due to eating poinsettia leaves,” Wahl says.

Continue reading below...

That's not to say they're harmless. If a child eats enough poinsettia leaves (say five), he may become nauseated or throw up. But he's not going to die. And he's probably not going to eat more than one or two bites in the first place because the leaves are "reported to have an unpleasant taste,” Wahl says.

Here's what you should worry about your child swallowing during the holidays: holly berries (which are toxic), alcohol left in glasses, and small ornaments that look like food.

A Holiday   Guide  to Poinsettias

To Care For Your Poinsettia


DO place your plants in indirect sunlight for at least six hours per day.


DO provide room temperatures between 68°-70° F.


DO water your plants thoroughly when the soil feels dry to the touch.


DO use a large roomy shopping bad to protect your plants when transporting them.


DO fertilize your plants after the blooming season with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer.




DON’T place plants near cold drafts or excessive heat. DON’T expose your plants to temperatures below 50° F. DON’T allow plants to sit in standing water.

DON’T expose your plants to chilling winds when transporting.


DON’T fertilize your plants when they are in bloom.


Poinsettias Are Not Poisonous!

The "old wives’ tale" that poinsettias are poisonous is simply not true. The Society of American Florists and Ohio State University conducted a scientific investigation disproving the charge that poinsettias are harmful. In fact, the Poisindex® Information Service states that over 500 leaves ingested by a 50-pound child would demonstrate no toxicity. Of course, like all ornamental plants, the poinsettia is not intended for human consumption. (And who has room for a poinsettia after all the other holiday goodies!)

Poinsettias can be used in such a variety of ways, they always make a wonderful gift. You never have to worry if the recipient already has one, since poinsettias look best displayed in groups. From a centerpiece on your holiday table to a miniature decorating the corner of an office desk, to a colorful hanging basket that can brighten any room, the poinsettia is always a perfect fit. Give one as a gift on National Poinsettia Day, December 12!


Selecting a Healthy Poinsettia

Choose plants with thoroughly colored and expanded bracts. The bracts are the colorful part of the poinsettia, while the true flowers are the small yellow centers. Look for plants with dense, plentiful foliage all the way to the soil line. The plant should be about 2x times larger than its pot size. Select plants with strong, stiff stems and no signs of wilting. Be wary of plants displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves, for these can reduce air flow.


After the Holidays

With proper care, your poinsettia can last long past the holiday season. Here’s how:

By early April, when the colored bracts begin to turn or fall, cut the plant back leaving four to six buds. Keep the plant near a sunny window, water and fertilize regularly, and by the end of May, you should see vigorous new growth. Cut your plant back again around July 4th and again by Labor Day to promote compact, full growth. Continue to nurture your plant as Autumn nears.

The Poinsettia begins to set buds and produce flowers as the nights become longer. Beginning October 1, keep the plant in complete darkness for 14 continuous hours each night by moving plants into a dark room or placing a large box over them. During the day, allow six to eight hours of bright sunlight. Continue this for eight to ten weeks, and your plants will develop a colorful display of holiday blooms!





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