The holidays bring with them a wealth of traditions. Culinary delights, seasonal decorations and family gatherings all take on special meaning during this season of celebration. Plants too are part of the holidays and have been for centuries.

Two plants, in particular, are associated with the Christmas season, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and the Winter Rose (Euphorbia pulcherrima aka poinsettia). Both plants have similar holiday legends attributed to them. Madelon, a country girl visiting the Christ Child is forlorn because she has no gift to bring but an angel brings her outside, touches the ground and forth springs the first Christmas rose (Hellebore), her humble gift.

In the second legend, a poor Mexican girl named Pepita had no gift to bring to baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin tried to comfort her by telling her that even the smallest gift if given with love would make Jesus happy. She made a small bouquet out of some weeds and when she entered the church and laid them at the altar, they turned into bright red flowers. Church goers were sure they witnesses a miracle and to this day poinsettias are known as the ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’ or ‘Flores de Noche Buena’. 

Over the past decade or so, hellebores have been a horticultural hit. They are indigenous to mountainous regions in southern and central Europe and typically found on chalky, stony clay soils. There are about 20 species of evergreen or herbaceous hellebores. They can be found in colors ranging from white to cream, green, and pink to purple. Newer introductions have expanded the range of pinks and purples and introduced doubles, bicolors, spotted blossoms and variegated foliage.

Hellebores come in a wide color range. Photo by dmp, 2008

All hellebores are poisonous containing cardiac glycosides, saponins and ranunculosides. In fact the Latin name of the species known as the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, comes from the Greek ‘elein’ meaning ‘to injure’ and ‘bora’ meaning ‘food’. Niger refers to the black color of its roots. Despite being poisonous, this plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb to cure mental disorders, intestinal worms, convulsions, tumors and various other ailments.

In its native habitat, the Christmas rose blooms from December to April, its buds opening as snow melts around its planting site. Here bloom times are also weather dependent with earlier blossoming during milder winters. Plants reach about a foot in height.

Helleborus niger sending up buds 12/28/21 in East Hartford. Photo by Louise Carroll, 2021

Hellebores in general do best in partially shaded sites with moderately moist soils. They can tolerate full sun but I find they need water on a regular basis or they do not grow much. Plan on planting hellebores in groups of 3 to 7 plants for a nice show. Plants spread slowly by rhizomes and seed. While not plant is 100 percent deer resistant, hellebores are usually not bothered by deer and other herbivores.

When happy, hellebores slowly form good sized patches. Photo by dmp, 2012.

Evergreen hellebores tend to look a bit ragged coming out of the winter and some leaves may need to be trimmed when new ones start to emerge. There are two basic groups of hellebores – those that have leaves on stems (caulescent) and those like the Christmas rose that have some leafy bracts on flower stalks but otherwise basal leaves (acaulescent). What most people associate with the alluring flowers are 5 petal-like sepals which surround a ring of yellow nectaries which are modified petals that hold nectar. The sepals last for months although their color fades. Leave them on the plants as they are thought to contribute to the development of seeds.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are beloved holiday plants and just like the hellebore, the colorful part of the plant that most associate with the blossoms are actually modified leaves called bracts. The real flowers are the small, yellow, bud-like structures in the middle called cyathias. There have been rumors about the poinsettia being poisonous but it is not. The white, latex sap, however, may produce skin irritations for some people.  

Poinsettia ‘Christmas Confetti’ bred by Bob Shabot, UConn. Photo by dmp, 2009

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, first brought the poinsettia to the states in 1825. It was a tall lanky plant that tended to drop its leaves but produced these beautiful red bracts in the winter. It was not until almost 100 years later when Paul Ecke of California developed a poinsettia that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. Now more than 34 million poinsettias are sold each year.

Breeders have expanded the color range to include pinks, creams, salmons, yellows, whites and bicolors. Some have touches of bronze and cinnamon. One of the Paul Ecke Ranch’s more recent introductions is the Winter Rose™ series of multi-petaled poinsettias. They were developed by Franz Fruehwirth who retired in 2000 after 38 years as a breeder for Ecke.

Poinsettia ‘Golden Glo’. Photo by dmp, 2021.

The first Winter Rose™ was a dark red and it was released in 2003. Each colored bract is puckered and inward curly looking like a rose in full bloom from a distance. After Winter Rose™ Dark Red was introduced, followed wonderful cultivars in light and dark pink, cream, yellow and most recently a cultivar called ‘Marble’ with soft pink bracts tipped in cream.

One of the outstanding features of the Winter Rose™ series is that the plant look great for many weeks, even months. Since this series has smaller leaves and reduced leaf area as compared to other types of poinsettias, it has a lower water requirement so forgetting to water plants occasionally is not as detrimental to them.

Winter Rose poinsettia. Photo by dmp, 2009

Poinsettias as a rule enjoy bright, indirect light, temperatures in the 60s F and enough water so that pots are moist but not overly wet. Often pots come wrapped in decorative foil. Make sure pots can drain well either by removing the foil and setting the plant in a saucer or by making holes in the foil to allow excess water to drain away. Keep poinsettias away from drafts and heat sources and they will look good until Valentine’s Day when you just might receive a bouquet of real roses.

Happy Holidays!

Dawn P.


Over 35 million poinsettias are sold during the holiday season according to the USDA making them the number one potted flowering plant purchased in the United States. Red is the most popular color with pink and white poinsettias not far behind. For a number of years, these three colors were all that was available but over the last couple of decades varieties started showing up in salmons, maroon, yellows, plum purples, creams, bi-colors and variegated. Plants are bred or treated to be multi-branching and more compact. Some are grown as small trees, or standards, while poinsettia hanging baskets are also an item in some markets.

Plum Pudding from garden marketing

Plum Pudding poinsettia from

Not only have poinsettias been showing up in new colors but the ‘Winter Rose™’ series was launched a few years ago first featuring red poinsettias with large rose-like, multi-layered blooms. I think these are really eye-catching and different. Soon these ruffled novelty poinsettias were available in pink, white and marble (a lovely pink and white variegation). ‘Winter Rose™’ plants may be a bit tall and stiff but the blooms are absolutely lovely in holiday arrangements combined with evergreen sprigs and coordinating candles.

Winter Rose by L Pundt

Winter Rose poinsettia. Photo by Leanne Pundt, UConn.

All the rage in Europe for some time now, ‘Fantasy’ poinsettias are becoming more popular in the U.S. You may have noticed sky blue, lavender, orange, turquoise or fuchsia poinsettias, some even with glitter, in various garden centers or florists. Most likely, you deduced that these are not naturally occurring colors in poinsettia plants. And, you would be correct as these colors are spray painted on white poinsettias. Sometimes a spray adhesive is applied after painting to capture the fine, colored glitter for that shimmering effect. Lovely to look at but is glitter good for the environment? One perspective:

painted points

Fantasy Poinsettias. Photo by dmp, UConn.

If you do choose a painted poinsettia, keep in mind that the paint may be water soluble so when watering your plant, do not wet the leaves. Sometimes we are asked if the color would be retained the following year and no, it would not be. The same goes for blue orchids by the way. If plant requirements are met for the poinsettia to rebloom next holiday season, it would be white.

Another newer development in poinsettias is the Princettia™. This poinsettia hybrid features smaller, more compact plants with more branching and lots of smaller, colored, bract clusters. Technically, the colored portion of the poinsettia that we find so attractive is not the flowers but a plant part called a bract. Bracts are modified leaves. The actual flowers are the yellow cluster of buds in the center of a whorl of bracts. When picking a poinsettia to bring home, select ones with the yellow buds not yet opened. According to UConn Extension Educator, Leanne Pundt, ‘Princettias’ seem to be getting more popular both as single plants and as components of dish gardens following through with the holiday decorating theme.

Princettia plant

Princettia poinsettias. Photo by Leanne Pundt, UConn

Regardless of what style of poinsettia you opt for, they are all synonymous with the holidays. Poinsettias are native to Mexico and plants bloom during December. Plants naturally grow along the western coast of Mexico and in deep canyons. They were used by the Aztecs as both medicinal and dye plants. The Latin name for poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means ‘most beautiful’ and among the euphorbia species that I am familiar with, I wholeheartedly agree. Legends say that this plant became a symbol for Christmas because a community of Franciscan priests settled in this area during the seventeenth century. They used this bright red, native plant that bloomed during the Advent season to decorate their Nativity Celebration. Soon this became a tradition throughout Mexico.

Poinsettias were brought to the United States by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1830, Joel Poinsett. He sent cuttings to his South Carolina greenhouse and introduced poinsettias to his friends. 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. Also, plants hybridized by the horticulturists at the Paul Ecke Ranch in California, were selected to be shorter, stockier and retain their bracts for longer periods of time under typical household conditions. The Paul Ecke Ranch and poinsettia business were sold in 2012 but poinsettias introduced by this company still remain popular.

Once brought home, poinsettias are fairly easy to care for. Setting them in bright but indirect light is recommended but this time of year the sun is weak so even a sunny windowsill will be fine. The temperature they are kept at is more important. Ideal temperatures for poinsettias are between 60 to 70 degrees F. Avoid drafts and excessive heat so keep them from doors and leaky windows and also, from wood burning stoves and heaters. Leaf drop is a common complaint and usually due to exposure to drafts.

Christmas Confetti - Bob Shabot's

Christmas Confetti bred by Bob Shabot UConn. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Do not overwater poinsettias as this will encourage root rots. Often they are given as gifts or brought home in pots wrapped in foil or set in colorful plastic sleeves. These would not have drainage holes and if plants are given too much water, the pots will be sitting in standing water. Usually it is best to remove these wrappings and place a saucer underneath the pot. Try to keep the potting mix moderately moist.

It is not necessary to fertilizer your poinsettia if it is just to be kept around for the holidays. Those hoping to get the plant to rebloom next holiday season would wait until bracts fade and then cut back the plant to about 8 inches. Continue to water on the light side and begin monthly fertilizing when new growth is seen usually May. Plants can be grown throughout the summer with occasional pinching done to encourage branching. Transplant poinsettias into larger pots if necessary. Starting October 1st, keep your poinsettia in total darkness from about 5 pm to 7 am and do this for 10 weeks. The bracts should begin to color up again in late November and enjoy this beautiful poinsettia plant for another holiday season.

Bob's poinsettias

Poinsettias in the UConn Floriculture Greenhouse. Photo by dmp, UConn

It has been rumored the poinsettias are poisonous when, in fact, they are not. These plants have been tested by the National Poison Center in Georgia and other agencies and it has been found that the sap may be irritating to some people who have skin sensitivities and if a large quantity of the plant is consumed it can lead to stomach discomfort, but neither of these conditions are fatal. It would be wise to keep all plants out of the reach of curious children and pets.

Enjoy these traditional holiday plants throughout this joyous season. Their color and stamina will help us get through these darkest days of winter. A peaceful and productive New Year to all,

Dawn P.

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!