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Holiday poinsettia: myths and truths

December 23, 2010
By H. JEAN SHIELDS, Garden Club of Cape Coral

By Jean Shields

This season the beautiful Christmas plant has taken a beating with the cold weather. Unless shoppers went early they had to be peeking under the long white caterpillar covers at garden centers for their poinsettias.

A couple days ago the covers were gone but most of the plants were still wrapped in tall plastic cones to keep them warm and standing in some sort of shape. There were some awful straggly ones for sale. A couple days before Christmas the prices still had not come down.

This year was just not the season for colorful benches of beautiful poinsettias of red and other colors that are now available on the market.

The original poinsettia, red, originated, by myth, in South Mexico. In an ancient town south of Mexico City, a young girl was crying because she had no pretty flower to place at the church alter. As she was crying, an angel appeared and said: "Lovely child, weep no more. Go pick a weed from the roadside, bring it to the alter, and wait." The little girl did as the angel commanded, and when she had placed her hand-picked weed before the alter, it was transformed into a tall beautiful plant bearing a whorl of brilliant scarlet flowers at the top. This is why the poinsettia is the magic flower at the alters of Mexico.

Christmas is a day of family gathering all over the world - some with more religious meaning than others, dating back to AD 1224. Most of us have adopted customs from our forefathers, adding new ones over the years. Many pagan ceremonies decorated with hollies and mistletoe.

In this country most families have a Christmas tree, a custom adopted from Germany by Hessian troops in the British Army, during the Revolutionary war. Trees and poinsettias are not the custom in Italy, Spain and Latin America. The symbol of Christmas for them is a miniature reproduction of the stable and manger where Christ is born. We have all co-mingled our customs over the years.

The poinsettia flower comes in shades of scarlet, pink, white and pastels. They are doing a lot of sparkles and glitter on the plants the past couple of years. Indeed growers are taking orders for specific colors and sparkles. They have even painted the plants to match a decor, with a special paint that does not harm the plant.

My favorite is strawberries and cream. A pastel pink with dots of cream, a plant I have not see this year at all. Maybe I did not look under enough covers?

I do have one that is not red. It is a varagated strong pink with a slight yellow splash of color on the leaves. I found it at the grocery store.

I was not able to get around poinsettia shopping this year due to the weather and me being under the weather. My daughter offered to buy me some but I said no, I want to be picking out my own. There is always next year.

I did not plant any of last year's in the soil after the holidays. My son out in northeast Cape planted one two years ago. It's still blooming, it seems to thrive on neglect, and cold. He gets frost out there. It is at least 2 feet high, with lots of top blooms.

Just so you understand, what we all admire as a bloom is not the actual flower. Modified leaves are surrounding a cluster of small greenish brackets in the center, they are the true flowers.

The growers are always manipulating and trying to improve the poinsettia. They could stop right now and we would forever have a beautiful plant with a history dating back to 1820.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the son of a French physician, was appointed as the first United States ambassador to Mexico, 1825-1829, by President Madison. Poinsett had attended medical school himself and later founded the institution that we know today as the Smithsonian. Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, S.C., plantations.

These brilliant red blooms enchanted him. He immediately sent plants back to South Carolina and proceeded to propagate and began to send plants to friends and greenhouses.

The plants spread from Poinsett, to John Bartrum of Philadelphia, to Robert Burst a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Burst is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulchemina (literally, "the most beautiful Euphorbia"). The plant became known for its more popular name abound 1836, the origin of the name is certainly clear.

It is a little late for hints on buying a good plant. Because of the cold season, it was not easy buying plants this past week, unless they were enclosed in the cones of paper to keep them from getting cold. These cones should be removed as soon as possible. The plant may lose a few leaves at first, hopefully only a few. They will drop leaves if not watered. I had to purchase three of these enclosed plants and only one dropped a few leaves. They need a high light placement and a strong drink of water that will drain right through the entire pot. Do not water well and leave the pretty foil pot cover on. The water will collect in foil and will rot the plant roots. You can water very carefully if you are leaving foil on. You can lift the plant and if there is water in the foil bottom you will feel it. Just tip pot, holding onto plant and pour off water. The plant will feel very light if it needs a watering. You do not need to fertilize a poinsettia while it is in bloom.

Another myth is that poinsettias are poisonous. This is not true. As a member of the Euphorbia family, it releases a sticky white sap when stems are broken or cut. This sap is not harmful unless someone should ingest several dozen or more stems. Not going to happen. A plant that has a nice strong stem that is broken off accidentally, or trimmed off to make plant more attractive, can be put in a plain glass vase for about a week. You must first take a match and seal the bottom of the sappy stem. This seals the stem. No water needed.

It cannot be planted later. You can plant poinsettias outside in garden and they will grow and bloom next year. We can discuss that project next week.

My best wishes for a contented and Merry Christmas weekend for everyone, as we all rejoice in this traditional observance of religion and holiday season. Don't wait for someone to make you happy, rather, look for someone else to make happy.

H. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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