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The Christmas plant — poinsettia

December 16, 2009
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

Poinsettias are far and away the most popular potted flowering or foliage plant of the Christmas season. In fact, poinsettias are the single most valuable flowering plant crop grown in the U.S., with about 17 million pots of all sizes sold wholesale, last year.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Floriculture Crops Survey, the wholesale value of U.S.-grown poinsettias was $154 million last year, which amounted to a modest annual decline of about 5 percent from the $161.5 million wholesale value of poinsettias in 2007.

Still, they remained America's top-value wholesale flowering plant crop, as they have been for decades, followed somewhat closely by orchids, which had a wholesale value of about $137.5 million. Compare that to the wholesale value of chrysanthemums, which was just over $35 million in 2008, and the wholesale value of Easter lilies, which was just under $25 million.

Paul Ecke Ranch, in Encinitas, Calif., is recognized as the largest and most successful poinsettia breeder in the world. The Ecke family has been growing and selling poinsettias for three generations, since 1905, first as field-grown landscape and mother plants and as cut flowers, and eventually, as greenhouse-grown stock plants. In 2002, the Ranch introduced Prestige, a cultivar characterized by exceptional branching and extremely sturdy stems. It quickly became, and remains, one of the top selling poinsettia varieties in the world. Today, Paul Ecke Ranch's stock production facility, which employs more than 700 people, is located in Guatemala.

Poinsettias are native to Central America. In their natural environment, they are flowering shrubs that often grow 8 to 10 feet tall. Originally red, newer varieties are white, pink, yellow, orange and even multi-colored. Some have curled bracts (the beautifully colored leaves that are often mistaken for flowers). Others sport variegated leaves. They belong to the euphorbia family, a group of about 3,000 plants distinguished by their milky white sap.

It is widely believed that poinsettias were prized by the ancient Aztecs, who called them 'cuetlaxochitle' and looked upon them as a symbol of purity. They became associated with the celebration of Christmas centuries later, it is said, following a Christmas Eve miracle.

Mexican legend has it that a young servant girl came to Christmas Eve mass with a bouquet of weeds that she had gathered on her way to church. She entered the chapel and saw that many precious gifts had been placed before the altar flawless jewelry crafted from the finest silver and gold, magnificent food and luxurious clothing. She approached the altar to place her humble gift among the others, hoping only that it would be acceptable. And as she knelt down, her bouquet of wildflowers burst into brilliant red blooms.

Word of the miracle traveled quickly from village to village, and was passed down from generation to generation. The bright red flowers became known as Flores de Noche Buena - Flowers of the Holy Night.

Today, poinsettias are commonly called Flores de Noche Buena throughout Central America. They bloom each year during the Christmas season. And the bracts are said to represent the Star of Bethlehem. They have been used by Franciscan priests in nativity processions since the 17th century.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima - literally, the most beautiful euphorbia) was given its name by William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett, who had a penchant for botany, served as America's first minister (or ambassador) to Mexico from 1825 to 1829 and is credited with, among other things, bringing the American elm (and Freemasonry) to Mexico, and the poinsettia (along with certain varieties of red and yellow mimosas, the Mexican rose and a hibiscus that can change from white to pink in a day) to this country. In recognition of Joel Roberts Poinsett's many accomplishments, Dec. 12, the date of his death in 1851, was declared National Poinsettia Day by an Act of Congress.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. Studies conducted in cooperation with the Society of American Florists at Ohio State University found no toxicity to humans or pets at ingestion levels far exceeding those likely to occur in homes.

Poinsettias, however, are not meant to be eaten, and some people may experience an allergic reaction to them. Therefore, it is best to keep them beyond the reach of toddlers and away from inquisitive pets.

A two-year study conducted by NASA scientists concluded that poinsettia plants remove formaldehyde pollution from indoor environments. Formaldehyde is found in building materials, carpeting, furniture, paper goods and even some clothing. In 1992, poinsettia was added to a USDA list of houseplants most helpful in removing pollutants from indoor air.

Holiday poinsettias do best in bright, indirect sunlight at comfortable temperatures (65 to 70 degrees F). They don't fair well when subjected to cold drafts or dry heat and require watering when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch.

As they lose their bracts, poinsettias also lose their aesthetic appeal. Most folks simply add them to the compost pile, but with proper care (and a bit of luck), poinsettias can be saved and made to bloom again the following year. If you would like to know more, please contact Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County and ask for the fact sheet on poinsettia care.



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