History of Poinsettias

poinsettia hedge (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

poinsettia hedge (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

You have to be careful when surfing the Internet. Before you know it, the Internet will trap you in its web and keep you transfixed for hours.
For instance, just the other evening, I started to look for a few choice tidbits about growing poinsettias, which are native to tropical Mexico and Central America. Before you knew it, I was reading a fascinating description of the Aztec religion, the war waged by the Spanish against the Aztecs, and a bizarre debate as to whether monotheists have a right to pass judgment on the polytheist Aztecs and their ritual of human sacrifice.
To the Aztecs, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was a symbol of purity. Jose Burciaga writes that the poinsettia “was cultivated as an exotic gift from nature and admired but never touched. Its bright red color had been given by the gods as a reminder of the periodic sacrificial offerings. The intense red represented the precious liquid of the sacrifices offered to the gods.” Since the poinsettia, in Mexico, turns red in the fall, it became a sign for the Spanish settlers that Christmas was coming and, eventually, a symbol of that holiday.
Pure essence
Burciaga translates cueslaxochitl – the Aztec word for poinsettia – as “flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.” For many people who will receive a poinsettia in the days ahead, this definition will hold true, as they will see their plants die, or throw them away as their color fades, before the month is over.
The idea, of course, is not to despair at the poinsettia’s “perishing purity” but to summon up the resolve and the patience to make it grow beautiful again. It will take most of a year to make this happen, but that is what makes the project so worthwhile. Plants, after all, teach us over and over again the one lesson that almost nothing else in our daily lives can teach; namely, that with patience all things are possible.
As January begins, if not before, some of the colorful leaf-like bracts of the poinsettia will begin to fade and then fall off. Within three to 12 weeks, depending on the variety of poinsettia that you have, there will be nothing but a leafless stem to look at. At this point, you will want to water sparingly, if at all, keeping the soil just moist enough so that the stem does not shrivel. Cut the stem back to a height of 4 to 6 inches.
Around May 1, new leaves should begin to appear. Each time you water – and you should do so frequently once the plant has leafed out – fertilize with a water-soluble product (such as Miracle-Gro) at one-quarter strength of the recommended dosage.
In the dark
Starting in the middle of September, keep your poinsettia in the dark, by putting a black plastic bag over it or by placing it in a closet, from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. Like the chrysanthemum, which the poinsettia has replaced as the No. 1 potted plant in the nation, the poinsettia needs long nights, uninterrupted by any light whatsoever, to flower. If you should accidentally shine a flashlight in the closet where your poinsettia is spending the night it may not flower in December.
If you don’t care when your poinsettia turns red, leave it next to a bright window all year long and it will color up in February.
Poinsettias can be planted outdoors in late March (as far north as Santa Clarita), where they will grow into 10-by-10-foot shrubs. Poinsettias are picky about soil; without excellent drainage, they will dry of root rot.
This plant gets its common name from Joel R. Poinsette, botanist and U.S. ambassador to Mexico more than 150 years ago. Poinsette sent back samples of the plant to his native South Carolina. Later, he made a living by growing and propagating the plants in greenhouses and then selling them.
There is a myth about poinsettias being poisonous. No one has found concrete evidence that anyone ever died from consumption of a poinsettia leaf. Leaves, bracts, stems and white sap have been analyzed, and no toxic chemicals have been found in them. Poinsettia sap may cause skin irritations for some people.
Two other holiday plants are actually more of a worry. According to Horticulture and Home Pest News, the berries of mistletoe, if eaten, can cause “acute stomach irritation, cardiovascular collapse and even death.” The ingestion of holly berries will also result in stomach sickness.
Tip of the week: When selecting a poinsettia, make sure the flower – which consists of small yellow buds in the center of the colored bracts – is intact. This is a sign that the plant is still fresh and will give an extended color show. If the flower is absent, expect the color of the bracts to fade quickly.

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