By MARION BARNES
No flower says Christmas quite like the poinsettia. This colorful plant with its traditional red and green foliage is the number one most popular flowering potted plant in the United States, even though its traditional sales period is just six weeks. Poinsettias account for over $200 million in retail sales annually in this country.
The poinsettia is a member of the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family and is native to Mexico and Central America where wild plants grow 10-15 feet in height with only one or two stems. In Mexico it blooms in December and is called “ La Flor de la Nochebuena” — Flower of the Holy Night. The Aztecs called the plant “Cuitlaxochitl,” which means star flower and used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric for clothing, and its sap was thought to be used to control fevers.
The poinsettia was introduced into America through Charleston South Carolina in the early 1820s by Joel R. Poinsett, a botanist, physician and the first United States ambassador to Mexico. December 12 is Poinsettia Day, marking the death of Joel Poinsett and honoring Paul Ecke Jr. who is considered the father of the poinsettia industry for his work and discovery of the technique that caused seedlings to branch and allowed the poinsettia industry to flourish.
The true flowers of poinsettias, called cyanthia, are small clusters of yellow blooms in the open center of the red floral bracts. These small flowers have no true petals attached, but are surrounded by red colorful bracts, which are actually modified leaves. These bracts attract insects for pollination of the small flowers. Plant breeders have developed cultivars with a wide range of colors including white, pink, peach, yellow, marbled and speckled bracts; however, red poinsettias continue to be the most popular and account for over three-quarters of sales.
If you are considering purchasing a poinsettia for the holidays, consider the following tips to ensure long lasting beauty.
• Select plants with fully mature and thoroughly developed bracts.
• Select plants with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage.