Alas, another Christmas has passed and the year is quickly drawing to a close. I realize this blog is a bit behind schedule but please chalk it up to hosting 25 close kin for our Christmas Eve dinner and celebration. I love the holidays – the decorating, the baking, the getting together with friends and family – even shopping is tolerable with catalogs and the internet! Sweet carols being sung by the choir, churches with tall steeples frosted with snow, and lots and lots of exuberantly colored poinsettias! Apparently, I am not alone in my enthusiasm for these festive plants as, last I heard, over 25 million plants are produced annually to spread holiday cheer.

Poinsettias grown at UConn Floriculture Greenhouse

 Even when poinsettias mostly came in shades of fiery red, I was enamored by them. I recalled being told the legion of the poinsettia as a little girl. Long ago, on Christmas Eve, a poor Mexican child has no gift for the Christ Child. Being consoled that even the humblest gift, if given in love, would be acceptable by Him, she picked a bouquet of roadside flowers and laid it at his feet. Miraculously, these ordinary weeds burst into brilliant blooms. This is how the poinsettia received its name, Flower of the Holy Night.

Originating in Mexico, poinsettias grow as 6 to 10 foot shrubs. Because of its brilliant color, this plant was cultivated by the Aztecs who believed it to symbolize purity. They also used it as a dye plant and valued its medicinal properties. When a community of Franciscan priests settled in this area during the seventeenth century, they used this bright red native plant which bloomed during the Advent season to decorate their Nativity Celebration. Soon this became a tradition throughout Mexico.

Christmas Rose double poinsettia

The poinsettia was first introduced to the United States during the 1820’s by Joel Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett, a southern plantation owner and botanist, brought plants back to his South Carolina greenhouse where they flourished. It was not until 1920, however, that the first poinsettia variety was developed that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. The credit for this development goes to Paul Ecke, Sr. who went on to develop dozens of new cultivars including shades of orange, dusty rose, pink, creamy white and yellow.

Through the years, breeders have worked to expand the color range of poinsettias while simultaneously developing shorter, fuller plants with denser, more compact blooms. Gone are the leggy, leaf-dropping poinsettias of past decades. While breeding has much to do with these stockier plants, artificial lighting and the judicious use of growth regulators also play a part in creating the lovely plants we purchase. Keep this in mind and you will not be disappointed if plants you have managed to keep over are a little more leggy than they originally were.

Often the bright colored bracts are mistaken for the poinsettia’s flower. Actually, the flower is the yellowish berry-like cluster at the bract’s center. Pink colored cultivars, in particular, are noted for their longevity, frequently hanging on to their lovely bracts until well into March.

New poinsettia cultivars are continuously being developed. Here at the University of Connecticut, Floriculture Greenhouse grower, Robert Shabot has been working on a few introductions including the one pictured here called ‘Cinnamon Stick’. If you stopped in at the greenhouses this season, you could see them up close and personal and even purchased a few plants to spice up your holiday décor.   

Cinnamon Stick Poinsettia developed by Robert Shabot, UConn

Keep your poinsettia healthy and vibrant looking by giving it as much light as possible. Let plant dry out slightly between waterings. Be sure drainage is good. Overwatered plants will turn yellow and show signs of wilting. Although poinsettias will hold their leaves for a while in low light situations, a bright sunny window is best. Avoid locations exposed to cold drafts or hot blasts of air.

Many believe poinsettias to be poisonous but no record exists of any fatality caused by poinsettia ingestion according to the National Clearinghouse for Poison Control Center. Some people might develop a contact dermatitis from the white, latex sap, however.

Poinsettias are like candy canes, gaily decorated trees, and bright, red bows – it wouldn’t seem like the holiday season without them!

Wishing all a happy and healthy holiday season!