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Are Our Christmas Poinsettias Really Flowers?
Posted on Monday, December 10, 2012 by eNature
Cultivated Red Poinsettia
Cultivated Red Poinsettia
Red and white cultivated Poinsettia
Red and white cultivated Poinsettia
Wild Poinsettia, note how open the stems and bracts are.
Wild Poinsettia, note how open the stems and bracts are.
Pointsettia detail, showing cyathia
Pointsettia detail, showing cyathia

Poinsettias seem to be everywhere during the the holiday season— schools, homes, offices and everywhere in between.

But how many of us have seen a poinsettia in the wild?  And what’s a plant doing blooming right as winter is beginning?

Just where did this plant come from?

What Exactly Is A Poinsettia?
It’s lot more than just a pretty flower (more on that below).  In the wild, poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a shrub or small tree, ranging in height from 2 to as high as 16 feet.  Originally a native of Mexico, the plant has been introduced throughout the temperate regions of the world and there are now over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia.

It’s Not A Red Flower
The colored parts of a poinsettia that make it so noticeable are actually not flower petals, but colored leaves known as bracts.  Measuring 3 to 6 inches in length, bracts are most often brilliant red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, or white.  A poinsettia’s flowers are grouped within the small yellow structures, known as cyathia, found in the center of each leaf bunch.  The plant’s distinctive colorful bracts are thought to have evolved as an alternative to bright flowers as a means to attract pollinators.

The process that produces color in the bracts is known as photoperiodism—poinsettias require darkness for 12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row to change color.  The long nights of the Northern Hemisphere this time of year bring color to the poinsettia’s bracts and are most likely what led to the poinsettia and its bright colors being associated with the Christmas holidays.

The Secret Of A Good-looking Poinsettia
Until about 20 years ago, the companies of the Ecke family in Encinitas, CA used a proprietary growing process to dominate the US market for poinsettia, supplying over 80% of all poinsettias sold in the U.S.

The Eckes grafted two varieties of poinsettia together to create the familiar, densely-leaved, bushy plants that we’ve come to know.  These carefully cultivated plants have a much more marketable appearance than the plant’s sparser and more open natural appearance.  In the early 1990’s the secret of the Ecke’s grafting process got out and many competitors, primarily outside the US have arisen since.

Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
Much like with mistletoe, many folks believe that poinsettia is poisonous if ingested.  And as with mistletoe, the data suggest that such concerns are mostly likely highly overblown.  While some sensitive individuals may notice an allergic reaction to the plant’s sap or oils, the the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild.  An American Journal of Emergency Medicine study of 22,793 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers noted no fatalities from poinsettia ingestion and reported that almost all poinsettia exposures were accidental and usually didn’t result in any type of medical treatment.

That said, children who ingest the plant should be observed and treated for poisoning symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea, at home if they do arise.  If there’s any doubt, parents should call their local poison control center and follow the advice given.

Do you have poinsettias in your home or garden?  Or do you use other plants to mark the season?

We’re always interested in your stories


Story about the Ecke family's poinsettia monopoly in the LA Times »



I have a December birthday and in the past, the December flower was the narcissus. Nowadays it seems to be the poinsettia. That’s OK because it’s a lot easier to find a poinsettia plant than a narcissus.

Posted by Patricia Nipper on 12/13

I have been told many times that poinsettias are poisonous to cats.

Posted by Elaine Poage on 12/13

I just love the,on the wild side. its very informative on lots of subjets. keep up the good work.

Posted by Doris Duncan on 12/13

In Georgia, we have a wild flower/plant that resembles a poinsettia.  It is the Euphorbia heterophylla.  They are not nearly as bushy or as showy as poinsettias, but are neat to see.

Posted by Elizabeth Neace on 12/13

I live in central Mexico. I have huge 16 inches across red flowers. I also have pink colored & cream colored ones but not as large blooms. They will grow tree size if not cut back. I cut back in late January & cut half back in late June. Flowers begin to show color in late October. If I cut flowers I have to burn the ends of the stems to keep as a cut flower.

Posted by Flor Field on 12/13

Thank you for the posting on Poinsettias! I grew up in the mountains of South India where they grew abundantly in the gardens there. The climate is probably similar to the mountains of Mexico. The poinsettia shrubs grew to 15 and 20 feet tall.My mother decorated with them much of the year as they were often in bloom! The little things in pots in the supermarkets here are nothing by comparison.

Posted by Evelyn on 12/13

One year I kept a poinsettia plant after Christmas, and actually planted it in the yard in Spring—I was amazed that it grew to 3 to 4 feet high and the colors returned the following year! I really appreciate the variety and the depth of your articles every month—thanks and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Posted by Padretom73 on 12/14

intersting abut the bracts.
about flower petals in general, they are actually specially modified leaves, and bracts may have been an intermediated between the two

Posted by Emily on 12/14


Posted by FRANCES SMITH on 12/14

I live in Mississippi and a few years ago i had a poinsetta which i had kept inside for two years. my neighbor told to plant it outside and it would grow huge. well instead, it died that first winter of being outside. and i never was able to get it to turn red again, all the leaves stayed green after the first red one fell off. wish i knew what i did wrong.

Posted by Doris Duncan on 12/14

I live in Minnesota. I have two poinsettia plants that are blooming on our living room hearth for the 4th year. In the summer I set them out in their pots and keep them watered,fertilized,and trimmed a bit, then bring them into the basement plant area until they get red. These have many clusters of 2 inch red bracts scattered throughout a bushy green plant. I like them better than the massive mounds of pure red sold in the stores now.

Posted by Ken on 12/14

I have native poinsettia growing in my front flower, I planted it this past spring, it was much prettier earlier than it is now near christmas, but I’m keeping it. I have several volunteers popping up. As for the other Poinsettia from Mexico, My cat ate some leaves last year before I caught him and he’s still living, didn’t even make him sick.

Posted by Dena on 12/22
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