Tomorrow is National Poinsettia Day. While it may not rank up there with other major holidays of the season, this observance of a plant closely associated with the Christmas holidays is worth noting. If you think of bright red bracts at the mention of this winter bloomer, you’re a traditionalist. There’s nothing wrong with that; almost 3/4 of poinsettia buyers prefer that color. But poinsettias are available in many more colors, now, from pink to white, creamy yellow, deep plum, and marbled and frosted bicolors.
You may even find poinsettias spray painted in gold, or blue or sprinkled with glitter. These “unnatural” colors make it easy to match the flowers to any decor. This trend hit the marketplace only a couple of years ago, but it’s not really new. When I was in grad school at Colorado State—some 30 years ago—one of our professors came up with the idea of spray painting poinsettias. The university greenhouse crop of poinsettias was not coloring up in time to sell for the holidays. (Turns out a light leak from street light upset the plants’ requirement for short days to develop colored bracts.) Because a beautiful crop of red poinsettias ready to sell in January is about as valuable as jack-o-lantern pumpkins in December, we tried to figure out a way to salvage the crop. Gold spray paint came to the rescue. Those gold-painted poinsettias sold like hotcakes in the Fort Collins grocery stores where we had our university flower shop boutiques. One of the undergrads in the horticulture department was Paul Ecke, III, whose family name is practically synonymous with poinsettia. The Eckes have been involved with breeding and growing poinsettias for almost 100 years, and are the world’s largest producer of this holiday crop.
The poinsettia was named for Joel Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, where the plant is native. The plant’s botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “most beautiful euphorbia”. Some shy away from this gorgeous flower because of a persistent, untrue rumor that the plant is poisonous. Research at Ohio State University has disproved this myth. Some people’s skin may be sensitive to the milky sap. However, eating the flowers is safe (but not recommended!).
Newer varieties of poinsettia are long lasting. Given bright light, warmth (average room temperature), and even moisture, the bracts should remain colorful for months. In tropical areas, poinsettia will grow into a large shrub. I remember a photo of my aunt and uncle next to a huge blooming poinsettia bush in front of their home in Nigeria. In temperate zones its usually easiest to simply discard the plant when it’s no longer attractive. If you’re the type who likes a challenge, you can grow it on and try to bring it back into bloom next year. You’ll need to give the plant 14 hours or so of uninterrupted darkness each night beginning in late September in order to ensure bloom by the holidays. If you’re unsuccessful, you can always buy a can of spray paint.