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How to Enjoy Your (Nontoxic) Poinsettia Beyond its Beauty

I live in Greenville, SC — as did Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851) for parts of his life. His Greenville plantations near White Horse Road were equipped with hothouses for botanical study.

Sometime between 1825 – 1830, these hothouses were the recipient of Euphorbia pulcherrima specimens he collected in the Taxco de Alarcón region while serving as American Minister to Mexico. Franciscan priests in the Taxco area were already using poinsettias in a nativity celebration called the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, but this was the first time they had been seen in North America. From Poinsett’s plantation the plant was widely distributed to fellow horticulture enthusiasts and botanical gardens in the US and abroad. By 1836, most Americans were calling this colorful spurge the “poinsettia.”

Photo Caption: Poinsett's astonishing list of life accomplishments have little to do with his hobby of botany. It includes terms in the South Carolina state legislature and the US Congress, Chairman of the Board of Public Works, American Minister to Mexico, and Chairman of War (which represents a grim period in his life since his "war" responsibilities were overseeing the removal of Native Americans). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Gardeners think of euphorbias as great landscape perennials with chartreuse blooms or as annuals with tiny white flower sprays. A few of us even think of them as aggravating weeds. Though it sounds like scientific Latin, “poinsettia” is simply a common name for a member of this family. Euphorbias, including poinsettias, utilize colored bracts (modified leaves) instead of petals to draw attention to their less significant flowers.

If you’ve ever tried to keep your poinsettia for a year to allow it to bloom the following Christmas, you may have discovered that Euphorbia pulcherrima requires photoperiodism (a time of darkness) before its bracts will develop their festive colors. With any luck you didn’t discover this after nursing a mite-ridden, scraggly plant on your windowsill for months only to have it repay you by staying green all winter.

Photo Caption: The choice of poinsettia hues is no longer restricted to red, though it is still the most popular color. This pink poinsettia was photographed at Country Boys Nursery on Wade Hampton Blvd in Greenville, SC.

Poinsettias are most associated with their traditional rich red, but they also come in pink, white, cream, green, or orange. These colors can be combined as speckled, marbled, and bicolor patterns.

Photo Caption: Joel Roberts Poinsett traveled so extensively that it is amazing he lived to the age of 72 (and somewhat fitting that he died while on a trip home to Greenville, SC). This statue of him sits on Main Street, Greenville, near the historic Poinsett Hotel. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Since the early 1900’s, the Ecke family of Encinitas, California controlled the majority of the poinsettia market. The Eckes used a grafting technique that created full, bushy plants more desirable to consumers. Other growers began using the grafting method in 1990, but the Eckes still sell around 50% of the world’s poinsettias.

Photo Caption: The American Association of Poison Control Centers say there have been no fatalities related to poinsettia consumption and that few cases even warrant medical treatment. People with latex allergies may find the sap irritating.

Poinsettias were sold as cut flowers until the modern greenhouse culture started in 1923. Americans spent $248 million on poinsettias in 2004, with most plants selling for an average of $6 – $8. Pricier designer cultivars began emerging after 1967 with varied colors, marbling, and even cosmetic alterations in the form of paint or glitter. These costumed flowers sell well, but I prefer my plants au naturel.

Glitzy paints aren’t the only way to alter a poinsettia’s look. Much like the sought-after bulbs from the tulip craze, the showiest poinsettias are achieved through breeding plants with phytoplasmas, a bacterial parasite that is often species-specific.

Photo Caption: Joel Poinsett’s extensive traveling made him an advocate of decent roadways. A historic segment of the road from Charleston, SC through the mountains (built while Poinsett was Director of the SC Board of Public Works) still exists at the Poinsett Bridge Heritage Preserve in Travelers Rest, SC. It’s one of my family’s favorite quickie destinations in the summertime due to the air-conditioning effect of the creek.

The scientist who originally named this plant didn’t think it needed any help looking good. The botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima translates to “the most beautiful euphorbia.” Even among such a large genus I can’t disagree!

Called cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs, poinsettias were a symbol of purity and also had ancient uses as a cosmetic and textile dye. It was even used medicinally as a fever reducer.

Photo Caption: Variegated leaves combined with glowing bracts may be brighter than your neighbor's front yard lights display!

It didn’t take long for humans to become enamored with the striking appearance of Euphorbia pulcherrima, but the earliest known association it has with Christmas is a 16th century Mexican story. The legend tells about a poor child who wants to give a gift to the baby Jesus. When the other children laugh at the modest present, the plant miraculously transforms into a beautiful poinsettia.

Photo Caption: In the wild, poinsettias are small-stature perennial trees that can reach up to 16' in height. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Another bit of interesting history is that poinsettias aren’t poisonous — it’s an urban legend persisting from the year 1919! You’d have to consume 1.25 lbs of poinsettia bracts per 50 lbs of human body weight to exceed the nontoxic amounts used in tests, and even then, vomiting would be the most disagreeable symptom.

Poinsettias are reported to taste disgustingly bitter so sane creatures rarely munch more than a single bract or leaf. However, I know some of you are host to “special” pets that would probably eat concrete unsupervised. It’s still a good idea to keep inedible items out of reach, but you can rest assured that even if a tenacious pet consumes your entire plant, your biggest worry will likely be replacing the holiday centerpiece (or perhaps getting a stain out of the rug).

Photo Caption: Most poinsettias are bred for large, showy bracts but this petal pink variety has numerous small ones.

How do we know it isn’t poisonous? It’s one of the most-tested plants by scientific institutions. Go science!

Speaking of science, the ambitious Joel Poinsett also receives some credit for the existence of the Smithsonian Institute. Though James Smithson is the donor who bequeathed the $508,318 (around $15,000,000 today) to be used for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” in the US, Joel Poinsett is credited with the suggestion of using this money to found a national museum institution.

Photo Caption:  Poinsett was a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts. Though his organization did not receive the money from the Smithson bequest, Poinsett’s ideas helped inspire the creation of the current Smithsonian Institute. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Poinsett left no family to succeed him after his death, so perhaps it is even more fitting that this flower has become his namesake. Moreover, poinsettias can be easily found in all the lands he traveled to in life — a family heirloom for our holiday tables!

When I look at poinsettias this Christmas I won’t be able to help noticing their extravagant beauty… but I’ll also be thinking of their historical connection to my city, to the past, and to the world.

Photo Caption: If you’re up for a challenge it is possible to keep a poinsettia through the year and coax it into bloom the following season. But most people compost the old and support the booming poinsettia industry each December.

I’d like to remind everyone that the deadline to submit your post written about a favorite food or ornamental plant to How to Find Great Plants is December 31st!

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