Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068  Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Poinsettia - The Most Beautiful Euphorbia

The plant we know today as the poinsettia has a long and interesting history. The fact is, that lovely plant we place in our homes during the  holidays was once used as a fever medicine!  Native to Central America, the plant flourished in the Taxco area of Southern Mexico. The ancient Aztecs had a  name for this plant found blooming in the tropical highlands during the short days of winter: cuetlaxochitl. Not merely decorative,  the Aztecs put the plant to practical use. From its colorful bracts they extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The milky white sap, called latex, was made into a preparation to treat fevers.

The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant for many years to come had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico.  Poinsett attended medical school, but his real love was botany.  Poinsett later founded the institution which we know today as the Smithsonian Institute.  Poinsett maintained hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there.  He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.  Named after Poinsett, its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima which means "the most beautiful Euphorbia".

A charming story is told of the origin of the flower.  Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services.  As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel, her heart was filled with sadness.  Her cousin Pedro tried to console her, "Pepita", he said "I am certain that even the most humble gift, given in  love, will be acceptable in His eyes."

Not knowing what else to do, Pepita gathered a handful of common weeds from the roadside and fashioned them into a small bouquet.  She looked at the scraggly bunch of weeds and felt embarrassed by the humbleness of the offering.  Yet, this was the only gift she could offer.  As she entered the chapel and approached the altar, she remembered the words of her cousin.  "Even the most humble gift, given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes."  Her spirits began to lift as she knelt down and laid the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.

Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had seen a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.  From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. Today, the common name for these plants is poinsettias!

Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas Season is definitely here.  That means poinsettia season is here too!  Each Christmas Season, 40 to 50 million poinsettias are sold in the U.S., making them the one of the top-selling potted plant.  After the gifts are unwrapped, the turkey is eaten, and the carols have all been sung, comes the final Christmas ritual: killing the poinsettia.  It's a brutal truth.  Here are some tips to help you select and keep these beautiful holiday plants.

The part of the poinsettia plant that has the color is called a bract.  The true flower is actually the structure in the center called the cyathia.  When selecting a poinsettia, look for good, strong bract color.  Only a small percentage of the true flowers should have matured enough to produce pollen.  Washed-out or faded bracts and lots of pollen indicates an older plant past it's prime. The foliage should also be healthy and lush.  Remember, there are certain poinsettia varieties that have darker green leaves than others.

To prolong the color of your poinsettia, place in a room with enough natural light that you can easily read a newspaper.  Keep a temperature range in the 60's during the night, and 70's degrees during the day.  Protect from excessive heat or cold drafts. Keep soil moist but not soggy, water thoroughly when the surface soil is dry to the touch.  Do not let plants sit in excess water.

Some tips on maintaining your poinsettia year-round.  After the holidays use an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.  Continue light, water and fertilizer, and plant will remain colorful for many weeks.  Around March: remove faded and dried parts from the plant and re-pot adding fresh soil. Make sure it receives six - eight hours of direct sunlight.  By May, the plant should have grown up to three feet tall.  Cut back all stems and branches one half their length. Re-pot in a larger container. Midsummer: Trim plant again to encourage branching.  Make sure it has full sunlight and slightly increase the amount of  fertilizer. By Labor Day: your poinsettia could be five feet tall.  First day of Autumn: give your plant 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness in a closet or basement, and ten hours of bright light each day.  Keep temps in the low 60's, and continue to water and fertilize. Rotate for even light.  Thanksgiving: Discontinue the short day/long night treatments and place the poinsettia in a sunny area with at least six hours of direct light. Reduce water and fertilizer.  Christmas Season: Enjoy your "new" poinsettia!

In our area, poinsettias can also be placed in the landscape after Christmas.  Make sure that it is in a place where it does not receive artificial light at night or flowering will be inhibited.  The plants are somewhat tender to cool temperatures so it helps to place them in a protected location.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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