Saturday, January 21, 2012


Did you get a poinsettia for Christmas?  I’ve never liked these Christmas flowers, at least not when they’re in a pot.  Seeing them in their natural environment is something else.  When Hank and I spent a vacation in Hawaii many years ago, I found myself gaping and gasping at the 10-foot high bushes sparkling with fire red blooms, despite  growing in nothing but black crusty lava.

We saw equally impressive poinsettias in Thailand, their blossoms (really bracts that surround the tiny flowers) thick and unruffled.  Comparing such magnificent displays to the pots for sale in supermarkets at Christmas time is as pathetic as pitting Yours Truly against Serena Williams on the tennis court.

Euphorbia (to commemorate Euphorbus, physician to Juba, king of Mauritania) pulcherrima (meaning very beautiful) is the botanical name for the poinsettia.  There are more than 600 other species in the Euphorbia family, their common denominator the milky white sap they contain.  This sap is poisonous and can blister the skin.

Dr. Joel Poinsett, the U.S. minister to Mexico back in the early 1800s, brought the first cuttings of the plant home to South Carolina.  For the next 130 years Americans enjoyed potted poinsettias at Christmas time, but they were very different from the plants we know today.  These early varieties needed the help of a skilled gardener to get them to last beyond New Year’s Day.

Even with plenty of TLC they quickly lost their foliage when they blossomed so they looked like skinny naked ladies in flowered hats. It wasn’t until 1963 that a marvelous mutation appeared, a poinsettia able to hang on to its leaves for months. Plant breeders imparted this genetic characteristic into other poinsettias, so nowadays we expect these decorative Christmas plants to look well all winter.

Poinsettias like to be in a spot that is free from drafts and gets sunlight for at least half the day.  They like cool nights (50 to 60 degrees) and warm days (70s). If you provide the above, you should have blossoms for months. provided you don’t give them anything nice to eat and allow their soil to dry out completely between waterings,

You must observe such a strict routine to get a poinsettia to set new buds for a second year of bloom that it is hardly worth doing, so I’m not going to describe it. If you really want to try it, look it up in a good garden book. 

The beautiful poinsettia with soft pink flowers  in my photograph belongs to my neighbor Jill, whose plants I water when she is away.  I’m glad to see it still happily blooming, since I definitely over-watered it. 


  1. Not crazy about them myself, but the history makes them a little more appealing. I usually don't buy one, but the sales on Christmas Eve are hard to pass up. Same with Christmas cactus - Bah Humbug. Give me some nice smelly greens any day, and a sprig of holly or wintergreen.

  2. I don't much care for them either - tried to carry a couple over til the next year once - a complete flop. I'd like to see the Hawaiian version, though - that would be nice.