By Audrey Stallsmith
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.
"Flame-Heart" by Claude McKay
It's ironic that the "blooms" of our most popular flowering potted plant aren't really flowers at all. The bright "petals" on a poinsettia are actually leaf bracts. The plant's real blooms hide inside the little golden "cups" (officially known as cyathia) at the center of those bracts.
According to legend, those leaves owe their color to a Christmas miracle. A Mexican peasant child--rather male or female depends on which version you hear--wanted to follow the tradition of placing some blooms in the local church's manger on Christmas day. Unable to afford any actual flowers, he/she picked some weeds from the roadside instead. Once dropped into the manger, those weeds erupted with color.
In reality, of course, euphorbia pulcherrima ("most beautiful spurge") grew in southern Mexico long before Christianity was introduced there. The Aztecs called it cuetlaxochitle and sometimes used its white sap to break fevers or its red flowers to make dyes.
Although poinsettia can't really be called edible, neither is it as extremely toxic as rumor would have it! Spurges in general tend to be harshly laxative, and their sap-which may irritate the skin--has occasionally been used to remove warts. Tests have confirmed, however, that though poinsettia might make you sick, it isn't likely to kill you.
Because the plant bloomed conveniently close to Christmas, Jesuit priests in Mexico often added it to their celebrations, dubbing it Flor de la Noche Buena ("flower of the holy night"). It has also been known as Christmas flower, Christmas star, lobster plant, Mexican flameleaf, painted leaf, and winter rose.
Joel Poinsett, the first U. S. ambassador to Mexico, stumbled across some wild poinsettias near Taxco in the 1820's. Although Poinsett had already been a U.S. Representative, and would eventually become a Secretary of War and co-founder of the Smithsonian Institute, this VIP reacted as any other avid gardener would. He took some cuttings and mailed them back to his own greenhouse in South Carolina.
The plant he "discovered" and passed on to other U.S. gardeners and nurserymen probably looked quite different than the one we know today. It can be a tall and leggy shrub in the wild-reaching a height of 10 or 12 feet. Modern greenhouse growers usually keep poinsettias pinched-back and bushy, however, forcing them into bloom while they're still relatively short.
Most types marketed today derive from an "oak-leaf" cultivar developed by a Mrs. Enteman from New Jersey in 1923. The poinsettia owes its present popularity largely to the Paul Ecke family, which was the first to produce and promote the plant on a massive scale. Although the red blooms of the original lasted for just a few days, modern varieties cover a much wider color spectrum and have been bred to hold up much longer.
By the end of the Christmas season, however, even the most up-to-date poinsettia tends to look as tired as the celebrants. So it often gets "tossed" after New Year's Day. But you can keep yours, if you wish, and attempt to force it into bloom again next year. The process is a bit difficult, though, requiring that the plant experience cool conditions and 14 hours of total darkness every night, beginning in mid-September.
There are also "summer poinsettias" that you may want to try in your garden. They look somewhat similar to the Christmas flower, but are actually amaranthus tricolor varieties that grow to about 5 feet.
Although poinsettia came late to the holiday celebration, it is said--in Mexico--to stand for the Christmas star. And the long nights it must suffer to bloom remind me of the long "night" the world endured, before a star "bloomed" in the East to announce the birth of a Savior.
As a prophetic verse from the Old Testament expresses it, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." (Isaiah 9:2)
Plant plate is from Berthe Hoola van Nooten's Fleurs, fruits et feuillages choisis de I'ille de Java, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.