Cultivated Red Poinsettia
Red and white cultivated Poinsettia
Wild Poinsettia, note how open the stems and bracts are.
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?
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