The Truth About Poinsettias

A Kaleidoscope of vibrant Poinsettias in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

A Kaleidoscope of vibrant Poinsettias (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Love ’em or hate ’em, Poinsettias are here to stay. And fortunately, they’ve come a long way (baby) toward sustaining their status as the most popular holiday plant in North America. Whether you pronounce it “Poin-set-ta” or “Poin-set-e-ah” (either way is acceptable-there’s no right or wrong here-like Pee-can or Pee-con), the plant was named after botanist Joel Poinsett, who discovered the crimson flowered shrub in 1828 while serving as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Understanding the potential of such a striking plant, Joel took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. The rest, as they say, is history . . .

Classic Red Poinsettia in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Classic Red Poinsettia (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Known botanically as Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “very beautiful,” this best selling potted plant is also recognized as Christmas flower, Christmas star, Mexican flameleaf and Crown of the Andes. The common name Poinsettia was chosen by horticulturist William Prescott (some time in the mid 19th century) to honor Joel Poinsett’s earlier discovery. A member of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family, poinsettias thrive in temperate climates such as Mexico (where they are native) and Southern California (the top U.S. Poinsettia producing state), and are capable of reaching over 10 feet tall under optimal conditions. Most Poinsettias are sold within six weeks of Christmas, and are estimated to represent approximately $60 million in sales annually.

Waves of prismatic Poinsettias in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Waves of prismatic Poinsettias (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Like many members of the Euphorbiaceae family, poinsettias ooze a milky sap from the stems and leaves, which has given this plant an undeserved bad rap. Poinsettias are not poisonous! In fact, you would have to ingest more than 500 leaves to experience truly harmful effects (even so, please take the Poinsettia salad off the holiday dinner menu). That said, the sap may cause minor irritation to those with skin sensitivities, and can cause nausea in animals, so best to keep it away from children and pets that might want to nibble its foliage.

Poinsettia with speckled foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Poinsettia with speckled foliage (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated plantsmen, there are more than 100 dazzling varieties of Poinsettia available to us today. From the traditional Santa-suit red to creamy white, pastel pink, and marbled-speckled specimens, there’s sure to be a Poinsettia to enhance your holiday decor. Yet what we call flowers are actually modified leaves or colored bracts that erupt from the center of the plant in a prismatic explosion of vibrant hues. These intense shades are created through a process called photoperiodism, where the plant receives 12 hours of darkness for at least five consecutive days. After the metamorphosis, poinsettias require abundant light to continue their brilliant display, often lasting for many weeks.

Creamy white Poinsettia in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Creamy white Poinsettia (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

And that leads me to the million dollar question: “How can I keep my Poinsettia blooming longer?” I may sound callous, but generally speaking, poinsettias are grown to be used and discarded. No matter how green your thumb (and the rest of your fingers), you might be able to keep the plant going for another year, but the flowers (if you get any) won’t be the same stunning performers as the previous year. However, you can get the best bang for your buck by choosing poinsettias with the smallest yellow pollen centers, providing at least six hours of light daily, and keeping the plant away from drafts and excessive heat. Despite their tropical origins, temperatures in the 60o to 70oF range are preferable, and maintaining a moist (but well drained) container is essential for a plant that will perform optimally for 6-8 weeks in your home.

Poinsettias with Variegated Hues in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Poinsettias with Variegated Hues (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Poinsettia Day is celebrated on December 12th, which recognizes the life of Joel Poinsett who passed on that day in 1851. Make merry and support your local nursery by bringing home one of America’s favorite holiday plants. Even if the flowers subside after a short while, the joy of poinsettia’s cheerful presence will surely be worth its minimal price tag ♥

For lots of other great info, please visit the University of Illinois Extension’s Poinsettia Page at:

*For indoor plants after your Poinsettia bites the dust, try: Terrariums


  1. I’ve never seen some of these colors, they’re Gorgeous!

  2. I don’t know why I found this so fascinating, but I did! It’s one of those things that you just take for granted and now learning a little history deepens my appreciation immensely! Thanks Kathy for opening my eyes, once again to the glory of nature.

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