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Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd. ex Klotzsch 1834
pronounced: yoo-FOR-bee-uh pull-KAIR-ih-muh
(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)
common name: Poinsettia
Euphorbia was named for Euphorbus, a physician in ancient Greece; pulcherrima is from the Latin pulcherrimus, most beautiful. Poinsettia is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, 1779–1851, the first United States ambassador to Mexico. It was he who introduced this Mexican native plant into the USA in 1828. The plant is also indigenous to Guatemala.
In the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuetlaxochiti, ‘skin flower’. The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye, and also as a medication to reduce fever.
The plant, potted, has long been associated with Christmas, especially in the USA. Legend has it that this association began in Mexico as early as the 16th century. A young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the birthday of the Christ Child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted from the weeds, becoming beautiful poinsettias. Certainly, from the 17th century Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. Across North America, poinsettias are frequently given as Christmas presents, and are used as Christmas decorations in homes, churches and offices. In the USA, December 12th is National Poinsettia Day.
Until the 1990s, the Ecke family, of California, had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias because of their secret method involving the grafting of two varieties to make a fuller, more compact plant. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, weedy look. In the 1990s, a university researcher discovered the method and published it, opening the door for competitors.
The species is a tall, rangy shrub that grows to a height of more than 3 m. It has large, dark green oval leaves that are toothed on the sides and pointed at the tips. They emerge from smooth green erect stems. Flowers are borne at the stem tips in winter. The yellow flowers are quite small – they are the yellow structures at the centre of the brilliantly coloured bracts. These bracts are actually modified leaves, and there are usually 8 to 10 of them, anything up to 18 cm long. the most usual bract colour is red, but breeding has produced a large range of forms and colours from reds through pinks to cream and white.
The poinsettias on sale at florists and nurseries are invariably selected cultivars that have more numerous bracts that are larger, growing up to about 30 cm long.
The poinsettia can be difficult to induce to reflower after the initial display when purchased. The plant requires a period of uninterrupted long dark nights for around two months in autumn in order to develop flowers. Incidental light at night during this time will hamper flower production. Those grown for the Christmas trade in Australia have similar conditions forced on them in greenhouses to replicate these conditions so that they will flower in the heart of summer, which is abnormal behaviour for them.
In the garden in tropical and sub-tropical areas, poinsettias can grow into quite large shrubs. They seem to be less popular locally than they were 30 years ago.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008, 2010
Page last updated 3rd December 2016