Winterberry Farm Primitives

This blog is now devoted to gardening with native plants with a focus on those species native to the east coast of the United States. With an MS in Agricultural Science from the University of Delaware and my love of native plants, I hope to help folks see the beauty and necessity of using native plants in your garden instead of exotic plants. Did you know that our native song birds and native insects are disappearing as our local environments continue to change?
For those who come to this page to see my 'Winterberry Farm Primitives' blog can now be found at where I will post new additions to my online antiques shop at and discuss various subjects about primitive antiques.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Musings on the Much Maligned Poinsettia

Hi everyone! As I am continuing to remove and pack up all of our Christmas decorations on this cold and windy January day, I have to set the record straight! You can see the poinsettias that we had in our home this Christmas and how beautiful they looked sitting in an old dough box in the livingroom. There are many myths and misconceptions out there about these New World natives that I would like to dispel today. Euphorbia pulcherrima, better known as the poinsettia, is a native of Mexico and Central America. In 1825, the pointsettia was introduced, and named after, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico. Mr. Poinsett was not only a physician and politician, but an amateur botanist. He found Euphorbia pulcherrima growing in Taxco de Alarcón,a small town in southern Mexico and began to send samples of what the Aztecs used to call 'the most beautiful Euphorbia' back to America in 1825; and by 1836 the plant was known in the United States as the 'poinsettia'. The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus (
Euphorbia pulcherrima, in its native habitat, is a small shrub that can reach a height of 16 feet! It has a height range of 2-16 feet depending on location. In the deciduous tropical forest of the Pacific coastline of Mexico it can grow as tall as 16 feet, while in the hot, seasonally dry forests of the Mexican interior, it will have a much smaller stature. The leaves can range in size from 3 to 6 inches and the colorful bracts have colors that span the red/pink spectrum. I hope you noticed that I used the word 'bract' to describe the colorful red 'petals' that we are all used to seeing on our Christmas poinsettias. Bracts are actually modified leaves that are associated with the reproductive structures of a plant. These bracts can be used by the plant to attract pollinators or as a dispersal agent for seeds. Bracts also grow around and protect the flower as in the picture seen here. The actual flowers of the poinsettia are the tiny little 'knobs' at the center of the bracts and are basically unnecessary for the modern poinsettia plant as all poinsettias in the market are produced through stem cuttings, a form of vegetative reproduction.The bracts of the poinsettia plant are one of the most beautiful and showy in the plant kingdom and here in the United States we have brought this showy leaf, used by the plant to attract pollinators, to a whole new level!
The Ecke family of California held a monopoly on the growth and hybridization of the poinsettia until 1990 because of a secret that led to the compact growth of their poinsettias versus the natural open growth pattern of this Central American shrub. They would graft two poinsettia plants together to make the tighter, more compact plant that we are familiar with today. In the 1990's a university researcher produced the same results using the same technique and then published his findings, thus the secret was out and competition flourished.
Now to the main point of this blog! The poinsettia plant has long been called dangerous, deadly, and poisonous. UNTRUE! That is nothing but a myth and has caused some people to miss the glory of these plants because they are worried about their children or pets eating the plant and dying. It will NOT happen! An article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine calls the plant 'mildly' irritating to the skin or the stomach and may cause vomiting in severe cases, BUT it also says that a 50 lb child would have to eat 500 BRACTS for a toxic reaction! That would be several plants-worth of bracts! This myth started back in the early 1900s when an urban legend was circulated that a small child died from eating the leaves - UNTRUE! While many of the plants in the Euphorbia genus are toxic, the poinsettia IS NOT TOXIC! So next Christmas - do not fear the cultivated poinsettia but buy as many as you want to have in your home to help celebrate the holidays and remember - please don't malign the sensitive and beautiful poinsettia!

1 comment:

  1. Great info Susan - thanks for sharing! I know a lot of people consider them toxic. Glad to know they are safe to have around~~