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History of the Poinsettia (pt 2)

Last week’s column detailed the basics of poinsettia selection and care, but what is the connection between poinsettias and Christmas? The poinsettia is a member of the spurge family, and its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful.”
Members of the spurge family contain a milky sap used for a variety of purposes in both ancient Greek and Aztec cultures. Remember, the sap can also cause allergic reactions in humans and mild digestive upset in pets.
Reaching heights of 10-15 feet, this perennial winter-flowering shrub is native to southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. Used for religious ceremonies by the native peoples, Spanish conquerors and missionaries quickly co-opted the plant perhaps as early as the 16th Century as part of their Christmas observations. Known as flore de nochebuena or flower of the Holy Night by Spanish speaking peoples and etoile d’armour or the star of love by the French, the vivid red bracts of the poinsettia reach peak color in mid-winter, making them an obvious choice for Christmas observances and decoration.
The poinsettia’s common name hearkens back to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1829.
An avid botanist, Poinsett sent cuttings from Mexico to the United States, where interest grew quickly.
Originally called “Mexican flame flower” or “painted leaf,” it was not until the mid-1830’s the name poinsettia was generally adopted.
This iconic plant is an excellent addition to your home or office, and with proper selection and care, it can provide a bright pop of color throughout the dark winter. Several other houseplants are welcome additions to your home during the winter months and will be featured in this column during the coming weeks.
To learn more about winter care of house plants or other horticultural topics, please visit the extension office at 212 College Street, Mountain City, or call 423-727-8161