The Poinsettia is also a flower


Euphorbia pulcherrima Ice Punch

Iconic images can become ubiquitous and with omnipresence comes monotony. The end of the year, when the holidays pile up like a multi-car crash on the Kennedy, is fraught with many such images, images which inhabit our imagination all too completely: bronzed turkeys, Father Time, Xmas trees, crèches, dreidels and...poinsettias.

Little did the American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, realize that his innocent importation 195 years ago of Euphorbia pulcherrima would bring him immortality. Just how popular have these plants become? Over 61 million plants are sold retail in the US and even more world-wide. All 50 states produce poinsettias, with the Ecke Ranch in California, which has been at this for almost 100 years, supplying over 80 percent of poinsettias for the wholesale market. Sales of poinsettias are a world-wide concern as 90 percent of the plants grown in the US are exported. Immortality ensured. Lesson learned: if it doesn’t have a name, name it after yourself. You never know.

For those few who think about them at all, poinsettias can bring out strong opinions which can be sorted into three categories: love (beautiful, nostalgia), hate (gaudy, nostalgia) or kitsch (equal parts love, hate and ironic nostalgia). But then most people don’t ponder the poinsettia, they just consider it part of the flotsam and jetsam of the Christmastide. Nothing can be done to sway those whose attitudes have already solidified so I will address those of you whose ambiguity has made you lose sight of this interesting plant; for I was once one of you.

Interesting, how? Well, for starters, we’ve been deceived; all that flowers isn’t a flower. Those red, pink, white, variegated, whorled, marbled, pointy petals aren’t; they’re bracts, a type of leaf with serious social-climbing issues. The actual flowers along with all their naughty bits are found in the center of the bracts. Still, those bracts have done their job well, acting as a lure to bees, birds and aficionados.

Secondly, you’d barely recognize your little potted poinsettia if seen in its natural environment. Deported back to its coastal, southern Mexican home and left to flourish it would soon join its progenitors as a 10+ foot tall, perennial bush. Try putting that under your tree.

So, how does one take the poinsettia out of the holiday? How can they be seen anew? A few suggestions:

Take them out of time and place; non-holiday poinsettias.

You bring a poinsettia back from the grocery or the Home Depot. Or you receive one as a house warming gift. You’ve done your best to keep it going for the duration of the holidays – water drains out the bottom of the pot and its feet never stay wet; it sits in a sunny window; the soil dries between waterings; it’s not in a cold or warm draft and it enjoys cool temps – and you’re thinking, hey, this plant is look’n pretty good. Do you want to make the commitment? Add yet one more houseplant to your burgeoning collection? If so, here are a few tips:

To your regimen, add monthly fertilization. In better weather - meaning above 50 F - set the plant outside where it will get plenty of sun but not the hottest, direct, afternoon sun. As it grows its trunk and stems get woody and you may prune it as desired; a friend has his 5-footer clipped into a standard form. Or let it revert to a bush. When transplanting, keep the pot small.

Once the plant has stored enough energy you may want to force the flower. And here is where the commitment comes in. In the wild, shortening days trigger the plant’s bloom time. Hence their appearance on supermarket shelves during the holidays. Growers use artificial light and sun blocking shades in their greenhouses to fiddle with this process allowing them to time the bloom to the market. No greenhouse? I hope your poinsettia likes the closet as it’ll need at least 15 hours of uninterrupted pitch darkness every night. The key word here is ‘uninterrupted’. You can’t walk into a room with a sleeping poinsettia, flip on the light and expect the plant to flower. It ain’t gonna happen. How long does this have to go on before the bracts get the message? Two months. I told you it was a commitment.


Euphorbia pulcherrima Enduring White

Take them out of their comfort zone; poinsettias as cut flowers.

A poinsettia as a perennial blooming houseplant sounds great doesn’t it? Fat chance, huh? Since the vast majority of people fail to keep their poinsettia alive much past the New Year anyway, why not give in to reality and use your beautiful poinsettia as the centerpiece of a cut flower arrangement? Besides it’ll save you from the shame of breaking yet another New Year’s resolution.

Practical tips: Poinsettia stems break at their nodes quite easily, sometimes too easily, but you can cut them wherever you deem necessary. If the stem is barky, smash it slightly. The sap of the poinsettia is a white and viscous fluid similar to milkweed sap and the cut plants will cloud the water it’s placed in. However this is harmless and the sap will not cloud again when you change the water on the second day. You can prevent clouding on day one by first placing the stem in boiling water for exactly one half second.

Aesthetics tips:  Tough call. Since the poinsettia is somewhat visually demanding, tone down the remainder of the plant mix in your arrangement perhaps limiting it to filler. Any competition from other flora may produce all losers. At minimum, contrast the color of the filler with the color of the bracts; light bract, dark filler; dark bract, light filler. Or mix light and dark poinsettias in the same arrangement. White or variegated green and white filler always works. A low dining table arrangement can be made by cutting the stem very short and setting it in water in a saucer or shallow glass; used this way the plant may not last as long but at least you’ll be able to see across your table.


Euphorbia pulcherrima Shimmer Pink

Take them out of your comfort zone; poinsettias given a new storyline.

I was asked to select the flower arrangements for the wake of an elderly woman who had died in mid December. She had loved Christmas (she was Roman Catholic - it’s mandatory) and at that time of year the best flowers at the florists were poinsettias so... I found a florist with a greenhouse packed with poinsettias and selected enough plants - in various sizes, from pint sized to almost bushes and in various colors, from white to pink to red – to surround her in her repose. The family loved it. Plus, after the funeral, everyone got a plant - a living plant – to take home with them. They may never view poinsettias in quite the same way again.

So, how best to see the poinsettia anew? Make them your own. Start a new tradition. Take them out of their element. But whatever you do, don’t ignore these unusual plants.

Haven’t had enough? For further reference visit the U of I extension; Paul Ecke Ranch.

Through January 6th, the Lincoln Park Conservatory is having their annual Winter Plant and Train Show and through January 10th Garfield Park Conservatory is having their annual Holiday Flower Show. Both exhibits feature a number of poinsettias in full gaudy splendor. Park hours.




Brilliant explanation of the unknown (to me) background of this plant I have sitting on my dining room table. As you say they are omnipresent, but also they stand out with their deep red coloring and add life to my dining/living area. Thanks for the great article! - Jim

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