Poinsettia pointers: Everything you need to know about the holiday plant
Walk into any store—from grocery to hardware to department—and they’re usually the first display you’ll see. It’s the mighty poinsettia, and during the holiday season, the plants fly off the shelves.
We’ve noticed the common red poinsettia is joined lately by all shades of pink, and even peculiar shades of peach, pink and dappled coloring. Our curiosity piqued, we found an expert in the mighty plant.
Dr. Steven E. Newman, greenhouse crops extension specialist and professor of floriculture at Colorado State University, experimented with around 150 cultivars of the plant several years ago, which makes him a pro in our book. For those curious about everything from the origins of America’s beloved holiday plant, to a myth surrounding it, we offer this Q&A, with our wishes for a colorful holiday season:
Question: First off, is it pronounced “poin-set-e-a” or “poin-set-a.”
Answer: I hear it both ways. I ignore the second “I” in poinsettia, and pronounce in “poin-set-a.” But if you want to argue it over martinis, I say that’s a fine topic.
Q: Where does the plant originate?
A: It is native to Mexico. You’ll see it there, and in places like Hawaii, as a semi-hardy shrub they use as hedges. It was worshiped by the Aztecs.
Q: How did it make its way here?
A: A man named Joel Poinsett, a U.S. ambassador to Mexico under James Monroe, was a botanist, and it caught his eye.
Q: So we have him to thank for the lovely plants in our homes?
A: He may have been the start, but if you ask me, we sort of fiddled around with them until the 1960s, when a botanist named Paul Ecke Jr. filled the studios of The Tonight Show with them. Then America took notice.
Q: What do you look for in a healthy plant?
A: Not necessarily dark green leaves, as some varieties have lighter leaves, but look for healthy leaves. Keep in mind that the red or colored part of the plant people often think are flowers are bracts, not flowers. The cythia, in the center of the plant, are the flowers, and they should be tight, and not falling off. If your market is putting them near the front door on display, the wind and cold may be doing them damage.
Q: How do we care for them when they get them home, aside from keeping them out of the cold and wind?
A: They like cool. High 60s, with a little humidity, and keep them evenly watered. And look at the fine print. I’m a sticker snooper. Buy a plant grown (in a greenhouse) nearby. The furthest I’ve seen a plant in Colorado is from Utah. If you can, buy from a florist. Sure, you’ll pay a little more, but you’ll get a newer, cooler cultivar.
Q: I have two cats, so I avoid them because I hear they’re poisonous.
A: That’s a myth I’d like to dispel. For children or even animals, they are not poisonous. Sure, if they chew down several leaves, a cat or a child may get an upset stomach, as with many plants. But here’s an interesting fact: two berries from a mistletoe plant actually can kill a cat.
Q: So with all those varieties out there, what’s your favorite?
A: I see them so much, sometimes I get sick of them by now. But I’d have to say an unusual flecked one called Monet.
A few fab poinsettias to have delivered straight to your door—or a friend’s: