524 Euphorbia pulcherrimaCommon Names: poinsettia Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge Family)
The poinsettia's species name pulcherrima means "most beautiful" and that it is! Poinsettia's brilliant red floral display held against rich green foliage has made this unlikely species a holiday favorite. Its appealing presentation of the traditional Christmas colors has so endeared poinsettia that it is now second only to the Christmas tree as the most popular holiday plant. Euphorbia pulcherrima is named after Dr. J.R. Poinsett, and was introduced to gardeners in the early 19th century. Always popular, the holiday poinsettia trade is today a multi-million dollar business with plants sold everywhere from florists and nurseries to supermarkets and convenience stores.
The species is a tall, rangy shrub that grows to a height of 10 ft (3.1 m). It has large, dark green, oval leaves that are "toothed" on the sides and pointed at the tips. They emerge from smooth green erect stems. Flowers are borne at the stem tips in winter. The actual flowers are quite small (they are the yellow structures at the center of the brilliantly colored "bracts"). The bracts are actually modified leaves - in the species there usually are 8 to 10 bracts that are 4-7 in (10.2-17.8 cm) long.
The poinsettias that we buy at Christmas are invariably selected cultivars that have more numerous bracts that are larger, growing to 7-12 in (17.8-30.5 cm) long. The Mikkelsen cultivars were introduced in the early sixties. They were better adapted to container culture, had larger "flowers" and were easier to dwarf. Commercial growers typically strive to limit the height of the plants to prevent top heavy specimens. This can be accomplished through several techniques, but most commonly the plants are sprayed with a chemical agent. They are typically forced into bloom at a height of 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m). Make no mistake though, planted in your backyard, this year's table decoration can reach roof height in a season.
Poinsettia, Euphorbia pucherrima, is native to the tropical areas of Central America and Mexico. They are now grown and enjoyed nearly worldwide wherever Christmas is celebrated.
CultureWhen grown outside, keep poinsettia mulched to discourage root knot. Cut back old growth in the late winter just before new growth begins as this encourages branching. You can pinch back terminal shoots several times during the spring and early summer to get more flowers later on. Never prune after about August 15, as by then poinsettia has formed the nuclei of the buds that will become the flowers. Light: Likes full sun but will tolerate some shade. Flowers are reduced in size and number and the plant become very scraggly if grown in too shady a site. Moisture: Average water. When grown in a container let dry out before watering - too much moisture will cause leaves to drop. Hardiness: USDA Zones 9 - 11. Frost will kill back this tropical plant. Propagation: Take cuttings in summer. Use rooting hormone on 8 inch tip cuttings. An easier way is to take cuttings of woody stem about 18 in (45.7 cm) long, stick in ground and keep moist (not wet) for several weeks.
The poinsettia is king of the holiday table decorations. Use groups of potted specimens to bring color and warmth to entryways and dark corners. Use them to hide the base of the Christmas tree. If you live in a frostfree climate you can continue to enjoy your Christmas poinsettias if you plant them in the yard. They make imposing specimens on the lawn and work well in mixed shrub groupings and hedges. Avoid planting near night time light sources as this will disrupt the blooming cycle.
The poinsettia is inexpensive and easy to care for. Varieties are now available in colors ranging from the traditional scarlet to white to pink to coral. The poinsettia can blend with virtually any decor or color scheme to set a holiday mood.
Every holiday season newspapers run stories about whether or not Poinsettia is toxic and to what degree. Although many species in the genus Euphorbia are highly toxic, poinsettia is not among them. Having said that, ingestion of this plant probably will make you sick (it just won't kill you). Remember too that several chemicals are used in the commercial production of poinsettia and these are potentially toxic as well. Do not put poinsettia (or any other house plant) where infants and toddlers can reach them. Children should be taught from a very early age to NEVER eat, or place ANY houseplant in their mouths.
Steve Christman 12/5/99, 12/15/03, 11/30/04, 10/23/07