The quintessential Christmas flower has a rich history complete with its own national holiday.
Poinsettias have decorated homes in the United States since amateur botanist Joel Robert Poinsett, who also was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought them to his South Carolina home in 1825.
But, the ties that bind the poinsettia and Christmas date even further back.
Mexican legend says a little girl named Pepita had no gift to present to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, so her cousin Pedro advised her to take a “humble gift.” She picked weeds along the way to the chapel.
Miraculously, as Pepita approached the baby and the nativity scene, beautiful flowers blossomed. They called them Flores de Noche Buena — Flowers of the Holy Night.
These plants are now known worldwide as a symbol of the holidays. They even have their own holiday. National Poinsettia Day on December 12 commemorates the 1851 death of Poinsett.
It doesn’t take the “greenest thumb” to keep this colorful plant alive, but they do require some maintenance. Watering them when the soil is dry and keeping the plant in a humid location away from drafts will go a long way. In addition to these acts of maintenance, a local florist would likely be happy to give a yearly schedule of trimming, sunning, and repotting.
“With good directions and an attentive owner, they are definitely not the most difficult plant at all,” said Maquoketa florist Wendy Scott of RonAnn’s Floral Shoppe.
These plants often come with concerns of toxicity, but research from the Ohio State University shows the poinsettia plant’s parts are non-toxic, including the sap, leaves, and petals. According to POISINDEX, which is the national information center for poison control centers, a child would need to eat 500-600 leaves to reach even the potential of contamination.
“There was a false scare for several years that the poinsettia plant was poisonous, which is definitely not true,” Scott said. “That did cause them to lose a lot of holiday popularity for a long time.”
As for any house plant not meant for consumption, a poinsettia can have adverse effects like discomfort if eaten, so it is recommended to keep poinsettias out of reach of pets and children.
Since public knowledge has shifted back to the plant being non-toxic, they retain enough popularity to keep Scott and her team at RonAnn’s Floral Shoppe busy. Even with the other holiday gift options of bouquets, candies and trinkets, she said that her store sells 300-400 poinsettia plants per year.
This plant with its vivid flowers has been a symbol of the holidays for centuries. With its own holiday directly preceding Christmas, poinsettia lovers have plenty of reason to celebrate.