If there was ever a plant/holiday combination that screamed “How the heck did that happen?”, the Poinsettia as a Christmas plant is it.
This ridiculously tropical, though admittedly lovely plant has now become a staple in the American Christmas landscape. This is despite the fact that the plant is unable to tolerate temperatures under 50F. And when I say unable to tolerate, I mean that a single gust of wind under 50F will cause leaf drop and when you get into temperatures under 40F, that gust of cold wind can kill it. I am willing to bet that a fair number of poinsettia have met their death in the parking lot of the local Mal-Wart due to the fact that an ignorant checkout person let the plant leave in nothing more than a flimsy plastic bag to protect it from the weather.
Poinsettia are originally from Mexico and may have very happily stayed in Mexico had it not been for the fact that Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, was a hobby botanist who fell instantly in love with the brilliant red leaved plant that “bloomed” in Mexico during the short winter days. He brought cuttings of the plant back to his home and greenhouse in South Carolina and raised the poinsettia to give as gifts to friends. Eventually, one of his gifts ended up in the hands of a Pennsylvania nurseryman who began to sell the plant commercially.
The poinsettia has the reputation of being quiet the Christmas grinch. Urban legend tells us that poinsettia are poisonous to children, cats, dogs and possibly some forms of hamsters. In reality (and substantiated by Ohio State University extension service) poinsettia are not poisonous. As a matter of fact, according to POISINDEX, the system used by poison control centers across the US, a small child would need to eat over a pound and half of poinsettia leaves before they felt the effects of any chemical contained within the plant. Even then the effects would only be a mild belly ache, though they are unclear as whether the belly ache would be due to the poinsettia or the fact that a small child ate a pound and a half of food. By the way, these facts apply to pets as well, so your cats, dogs and hamsters are safe.
While poinsettia came from Mexico, most poinsettia today come from the US. As a matter of fact, 90% of worldwide poinsettia sold world wide originate from the US. And of all the poinsettia sold here and abroad, two-thirds originate from a single nursery, the Paul Ecke Ranch.
These days, there are hundreds of poinsettia varieties, though only a few dozen of those varieties are available for consumer purchases. Never the less, every shade of red, pink and white can be bought. And if you think that having only red, pink and white in a few dozen shades is just too boring, freakish modern science now makes it possible to buy painted poinsettia of any color or sparkle.
I am still not sure why we have adopted poinsettia as an official Christmas plant but you have to admit, for a plant that isn’t really a flower, requires an extraordinary amount of coddling to get it to “bloom” and can’t stand normal winter temperatures, it does make a lovely foil to a Christmas tree.