MASTER GARDENER: Poinsettia synonymous with Christmas

Many people call the poinsettia "the Christmas flower." (Courtesy photo)

Many people call the poinsettia “the Christmas flower.” (Courtesy photo)

What could be more beautiful at Christmas time than the poinsettia? Many people call it “the Christmas flower.”

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico, being cultivated by the Aztecs long before the arrival of Europeans. The common name poinsettia came from the man who introduced the plant to the United States.

In 1825, Joel Robert Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, admired the beautiful red plant growing so abundantly on nearby hillsides. A skilled botanist, he sent some plants to his home greenhouse in Greenville, S.C., where they flourished.

Poinsett shared this new treasure with horticultural friends who named the spectacular plant poinsettia, which certainly sounds better than “Joel-ettia,” don’t you think?

Poinsettias have gained a reputation of being poisonous to children and animals. However, the latest medical information is that the leaves, while highly bitter, are not dangerous as supposed. At most, a large consumption of the leaves might lead to nausea. This has been greeted with relief by parents and pet owners who love this plant, although it is never a good idea to chew on the leaves of houseplants.

Hybridizers have cultivated countless colors and varieties of the poinsettia. The blooms, which actually are the leaves of the plant, can be large or small, smooth or deeply notched. Their colors range from cream to deep red, even variegated. The yellow cluster in the center of the plant is its true blossom. In a fresh poinsettia, they are closely bunched together and spread out as the plant ages.

If you find yourself in possession of one of these lovelies, water only when the soil surface is dry to the touch. Water freely until it runs out the drain hole of your plant container. Immediately discard any water that collects in the drainage saucer. Leaving this plant standing in water results in overly wet soil, which in turn smothers out sufficient air and causes root injury.

Poinsettias love to sit near a sunny window, especially one facing south, east or west. Being a warm climate plant, any part of the plant will shiver and die if touches a cold windowpane.

The late John Lennon said, “Love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep on watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.”

So, show the love to your Christmas poinsettia by following a few guidelines for plant care.

Sarah Bell Harris, a Master Gardener, is a trained volunteer of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. For gardening questions, call the Help Center at (662) 620-8280 in Lee County or (866) 920-4678 outside Lee County and leave a message.