Wednesday Weed – Poinsettia

Poinsettia – Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham,

Dear Readers, I can scarcely believe that I haven’t done a post on poinsettia before, but here it is, in all its Christmassy glory. Who would have thought that this plant is actually a Euphorbia? In the wild, it lives in Mexico and Central America, and is named after Joel Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico. Poinsettia grow to the size of a small tree if left unmolested, but most of them live their lives in a pot as a temporary house plant, being thrown in the bin at the end of the Christmas period as they lose their leaves and start to look extremely sad. It doesn’t have to be this way, though! Read on!

As you probably know, the red ‘flowers’ are actually leaves, or bracts, with the actual flowers being the little yellow and green blobs in the middle. They have been cultivated to appear in a variety of other colours, including cerise,  white and salmon. However, pretty as they are, cultivated poinsettias are diseased, according to Clare Wilson at New Scientist – to make short, bushy plants, growers infect poinsettias with a bacteria that causes them to grow lots more side shoots that terminate in those colourful bracts.

Poinsettia varieties (Photo By Andy Mabbett )

If you are lucky enough to receive a poinsettia at Christmas, the advice is not to overwater it – wait until the plant’s leaves are just starting to droop, and then put them in to a bowl of water for about an hour. The plant should also be kept at a fairly stable temperature (i.e. not next to a window where they’ll be cold overnight) – Wilson’s article mentions that the plants don’t need high light levels for the month or two that they’ll be on display, so they can be positioned well away from a window.

But are poinsettias poisonous? There was an urban legend in the 1920s that a child had died after ingesting a leaf, but this was later found to be untrue. Like all euphorbias, they can cause skin irritation, and I wouldn’t want to eat a poinsettia risotto or feed any to my dog or cat, but generally they are inoffensive plants. The Aztecs used the plant for traditional medicine, and one of the active chemicals in poinsettia is being investigated as a potential drug to treat Alzheimers disease.

Poinsettias in front of an altar in the Philippines (Photo By Ramon FVelasquez)

In Mexico, a 16th century legend tells of a poor girl who wanted to bring some flowers to the altar at Christmas, but couldn’t afford to buy any. An angel told her to pick some weeds and in the morning they had turned into poinsettias. The red colour is supposed to represent the blood of Christ, and the flower shape the Star of Bethlehem. And goodness, we have just missed National Poinsettia Day, which is on 12th December. Apparently the poinsettia is the most valuable potted plant in the world in terms of sales, with over 70 million plants sold in the US every year, to a value of about $250m.

How sad, then, that by January most of the plants are looking very sad, with their leaves dropping off and their glory much reduced. My Dad was a dab hand at bringing them back to life for the following Christmas, and though I’m pretty sure that he didn’t do anything as scientific as the advice below, it’s certainly possible.

Andrew Fuller from Bridge Farm Group in Spalding, UK, recommends that the poinsettia gets 12 to 14 hours of darkness per day for about two months once it’s lost its leaves. You can do this by putting the plant into a cupboard for that period, or sticking a bag over it. In a commercial greenhouse, the plants are actually ‘put to bed’ by pulling the curtains every night, which seems rather sweet to me. You will have to remember to do it every night, though. I have a suspicion that Dad just put the poinsettia into a room that wasn’t well lit for a few months and held off on the watering, to ‘give it a rest’.

And finally, a poem, by Jamaican poet Claude McKay (1889 – 1948). As I look out at the snow, it reminds me that for many people, December is a warm month. What a thought.



Claude McKay – 1889-1948

So much have I forgotten in ten years,
  So much in ten brief years; I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice
  And what month brings the shy forget-me-not;
Forgotten is the special, startling season
  Of some beloved tree’s flowering and fruiting,
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
  And fill the noonday with their curious fluting:
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.

I still recall the honey-fever grass,
  But I cannot bring back to mind just when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
  To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
  The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow bye road mazing from the main,
  Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple:
I have forgotten, strange, but quite remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.

What weeks, what months, what time o’ the mild year
  We cheated school to have our fling at tops?
What days our wine-thrilled bodies pulsed with joy
  Feasting upon blackberries in the copse?
Oh, some I know! I have embalmed the days,
  Even the sacred moments, when we played,
All innocent of passion uncorrupt.
  At noon and evening in the flame-heart’s shade:
We were so happy, happy,—I remember
Beneath the poinsettia’s red in warm December.

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Poinsettia

  1. Anne

    Our neighbour has beautifully large poinsettia trees that bloom during our winter – they are a joy to behold. When we were children we used to place the sticky, milky latex directly on warts in the hope that they would go away. They did eventually – but may have gone of their own accord 🙂

  2. sllgatsby

    I very much wish that Pointsett’s name was not associated with this beautiful plant. He was racist, nationalist, and so unpopular as minister in Mexico that they coined the term “pointsettismo” to describe Yankee meddling. He was a proponent of slavery and as Secretary of War, oversaw forced removals of Native Americans, whom he described as, “every day more depraved, indigent, and insignificant.”

    The Washington Post ran an in-depth story about him, and said, “the story of how the ‘Christmas flower’ came to the United States from its native Mexico is not one of peace and goodwill. It is more a case study in the highhanded diplomacy, Yankee arrogance and mutual suspicions that have long plagued U.S.-Mexico relations.” They concluded, “While Poinsett’s tenure has been largely forgotten, the flower that bears his name in the United States has unusual staying power and is a staple of the holiday season. But we might reflect on the imperious meddling of Poinsett and the lessons we can draw from this story when we next lay eyes on those scarlet bracts. And perhaps we can embrace the flower’s other names — the Flor de Noche Buena, the cuetlaxochitl — while working to excise poinsettismo from U.S. diplomacy.”

    I love the Nahuatl name cuetlaxochitl, which is pronounced different ways by different people, but commonly as kwet-la-so-chill.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s so interesting. I suspected that Poinsett wouldn’t have had a good relationship with Mexico but clearly it’s even worse than I thought. It will be the cuetlaxochitl whenever I think of it.

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I’ve not had one of those plants for years. (I don’t recall them being on sale in Switzerland, but they could well have been). As you suggest, they ‘die’ very easily (especially for someone like me who forgets to water these things), so I’ve tended to steer clear of them and most other house plants for that matter. Though we do have 2 cyclamens, (sorry cyclamena – just looked that up!) which are proving very hardy – even in our almost freezing cold house! They must have lasted about 8 or 9 months now, which is a record by a street!!

  4. Bobbie Jean

    “A Warm December” is also the name of a movie starring Sidney Poitier. It’s a love story that broke my heart as soundly as “Love Story” did. I just realized both movies deal with blood related illnesses.

    One year I saved a poinsettia that refused to die, and was rewarded several times over. It pretty much thrived on its own–requiring very little attention. Perhaps its indoor air conditioned environment was key. Ours is a too-warm December at the moment. I long for snow.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Lovely to ‘see’ you, Bobbie Jean! And yes, I think benign neglect is often the way with plants. I love Sidney Poitier too, I shall look out for the film.


Leave a Reply