Guide To Poinsettias

Poinsettia History

Poinsettias are as much a part of Christmas as holly and ivy, but how did this tropical plant become entwined with our festivities – and how do you take care of them? Martyn Cox has the answers.

They may hail from tropical forests, but poinsettias have become a traditional fixture of British homes during the festive period. In fact, they have become our most popular seasonal houseplant, with up to eight million bought every year to brighten up our homes in winter.

A native of Mexico and parts of Central America, they grow up to three metres tall in the wild and have spread throughout various hot countries – in the Canary Islands, for example, they grow as small hedges alongside roads.

Poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family, with the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima – but in Mexico, they are known as ‘Flor de Nochebuena’, or ‘Flower of Christmas Eve’. Legend has it poinsettias were born when a poor young Mexican girl called Pepita was upset as she did not have a gift to take to a midnight mass service. Seeing her tears, an angel took pity on her and told her to pick some of the weeds growing nearby. She placed them down on the church altar and as her tears fell on them, they burst into vibrant green and red plants.

The more familiar common name of this plant honours Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American diplomat and amateur botanist. He discovered the plant in 1828, following his appointment as the first US ambassador to Mexico.

He sent cuttings home to his plantation and continued to study and breed the plant on his return, sharing it with horticulturalist friends. It became popular in the USA in the early 20th century after nurseryman Albert Ecke spotted its potential and treated it as a cut flower crop to sell at Christmas.

Later, the poinsettia became a staple part of American festive celebrations in the 1960s, when the first varieties suitable for growing in pots were developed, and the trend eventually moved to Britain.

Different guises

About three quarters of all poinsettias bought are the familiar red and green foliage varieties, but over the past few years these have been joined by a host of eye-catching newcomers. These days, you can choose from many different colours and some are even marbled, speckled or variegated. The brightly coloured parts of the plant that we think of as flowers, are in fact bracts. These are a kind of modified leaf, whose role in nature is to attract pollinating insects to the cluster of tiny yellow flower heads that sit at the centre of the bracts.

Poinsettias naturally start to colour up in late autumn as days become shorter, but growers control the day length with artificial light to speed up the process. The plants that Dobbies buys in winter are generally started from cuttings taken in early summer. They are grown on in warm, bright, draught-free glasshouses and have their tips pinched out to encourage bushy growth.

A single poinsettia makes an elegant centrepiece for a dining room table in itself, but for even more impact try arranging a row of them together – slip plastic pots inside attractive ceramic or coloured-glass pot holders. Another option is to create a mixed planting in a pretty bowl that includes ivies and flowering houseplants along with a poinsettia. Whatever way you choose to display them, poinsettias are up there with holly and mistletoe when it comes to plants that say Christmas.

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