Poinsettia favorite #039;flower#039; of Christmas

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Many plants are associated with Christmas – holly, mistletoe, Christmas cactus and, of course, trees of all types.

But one of the most beautiful and legendary of them all is the poinsettia.

Native to Central America and southern Mexico, where the plants grow in tall bushes, the poinsettia has become a favorite to feature around a church’s altar or in its sanctuary. Its flower is actually the small yellow cluster in the very center of the branch; the vividly colored leaves, or bracts, surrounding that flower, are what give the poinsettia such a distinctive beauty.

‘The Flower of the Holy Night’

There is a wonderful legend surrounding the poinsettia.

Once upon a time, a poor Mexican girl named Pepita had no gift to present the Christ Child at the local church’s Christmas Eve services. As she walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, the little girl’s heart was filled with sadness rather than joy.

Pedro tried to console his little cousin. &uot;I am sure, Pepita, even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,&uot; he told her.

Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the pitiful bunch of weeds, she felt sadder and more embarrassed than ever.

Pepita fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.

As she approached the altar, Pepita remembered her cousin’s kind words.

Suddenly the scraggly bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant scarlet red, and all who witnessed it were certain they had seen a Christmas miracle right before their very eyes.

From that day on, Pepita’s plant was known as the &uot;Flores de Noche Buena&uot; or Flowers of the Holy Night, for it bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

A southerner brings the plant north

The plant got the name we know it by today, the poinsettia, from Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a North Carolinian who was once ambassador to Mexico in the late 1820s.

Impressed by the beautiful plants he saw growing wild by the roadside there, Poinsett took cuttings back to North Carolina and began growing the plant in his greenhouse.

Soon they were cultivated and circulated to other botanical gardens. By 1836, the plant had acquired its common name, the poinsettia.

In the 1920s, selective breeding by horticulturists in California had produced a shorter variety of poinsettia with more branches, with bracts in shades of yellow, white, green and pink (though the original red remains the favorite color).

And if you’ve always believed poinsettias were poisonous, think again: the plant is actually nontoxic (though the plant’s sap, called &uot;latex&uot;, has been known to irritate some people’s skin and eyes).

Making the most of your poinsettia

Ted Tindal of Tindal’s Nursery, a local wholesale nursery operation, shared some tips on choosing and caring for this traditional holiday plant.

&uot;When you pick out a poinsettia, you are looking for full foliage, good, rich color to the leaves and a nice, round shape to it. If it has those qualities, you have a nice, healthy plant,&uot; said Tindal.

Once you take the plant home, it is a fairly easy plant to maintain – as long as you are vigilant in its care, said the nursery owner.

&uot;Poinsettias from nurseries have already been fertilized and treated for the one pest that seems to be a problem, white flies, so you just need to be sure and check it every other day and water as needed to keep it from drying out,&uot; Tindal explained.

While other plants that have dried out can be revived and brought back to their former beauty, poinsettias, Tindal says, are &uot;very unforgiving&uot;.

In addition to regular watering, plants should never be placed close to a heating vent, a fireplace or other heat source.

&uot;Once the poinsettia has reached a point where the leaves are curling, they are going to fall off – and there isn’t much you can do to save the plant,&uot; he said.

For those who want to enjoy the poinsettia’s beauty beyond the holidays, Tindal says a once-a-week treatment with Miracle-Gro and regular watering will usually allow the plant to continue to flourish.

&uot;It also needs plenty of light during the day and dark nights in order to maintain its vivid color,&uot; said the nursery owner.