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What Does the Poinsettia Have to Do With Christmas?

By: Sam Abramson  | 

History of the Poinsettia

greenhouse poinsettia
Detail of the Poinsettia flower in a greenhouse in Xochimilco, Mexico. Xochimilco is known for its large floral industry and the Poinsettia flower is part of Christmas Eve celebrations in Mexico. Carlos Tischler/Getty Images

Poinsettias didn't arrive in the United States until the 19th century. The plant is named for the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced America to the poinsettia in 1828, after discovering it in the wilderness in southern Mexico. Dr. Poinsett, who dabbled in botany when he wasn't politicking between nations, sent cuttings of the plant back to his South Carolina home. While it wasn't initially embraced, its caught on over the years, and by the 20th century it was a holiday mainstay. In fact, National Poinsettia Day is celebrated on Dec. 12, honoring both the plant and the man who brought it to America [source: University of Illinois].

So what does a poinsettia have to do with Christmas? One interpretation of the plant is as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, the heavenly body that led the three magi, or wise men, to the place where Christ was born. A Mexican legend tells of a girl who could only offer weeds as a gift to Jesus on Christmas Eve. When she brought the weeds into a church, they blossomed into the beautiful red plants we know as poinsettias, known as Flores de Noche Buena in Mexico (Spanish for "flowers of the holy night").

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A common myth that has existed for generations is that a poinsettia's leaves are poisonous. Although it's probably not a good idea to have a competitive-eating contest with poinsettia bracts since they could cause diarrhea, research has shown that a child could consume as many as 500 poinsettia bracts without any toxic effects [source: Perry]. A tot who accidentally nibbles on a leaf may not feel well, but the consequences won't be fatal. The plant does ooze a milky sap if you cut its stem, which some people are allergic to.

Christmas Pointsettia FAQ

How Often Do You Have to Water a Poinsettia Plant?
You'll want to water your potted poinsettia when the soil becomes dry, roughly once a week. Make sure you take the foil off and let the water drain freely before putting it back in its spot.
Do Poinsettias Like Sun or Shade?
The University of Minnesota extension explains that indoor poinsettias should be placed in a south, east or west spot that receives direct sunlight. If you're planting your poinsettia outside, it'll be happy with part sun for four to six hours.
How Long Does a Poinsettia Last?
Your indoor poinsettia should last for a few weeks, but if you're feeling adventurous, you can plant it outside once you no longer have to worry about frost, and it will last much longer.
Are Poinsettias Indoor or Outdoor Plants?
These members of the Euphorbia family are both indoor and outdoor plants. Poinsettias may start out as indoor plants since they're often given as gifts, but gardeners can take them outside once the threat of frost has passed.
Are Christmas Poinsettias Poisonous to Cats?
According to the ASPCA, poinsettias generally are overrated in their toxicity to cats, dogs and horses, but they are irritating.

Originally Published: Nov 21, 2007

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Sources

  • Perry, Dr. Leonard. "Fun Facts about Poinsettias." Backyardgardener.com. (11/14/07). http://www.backyardgardener.com/masterg/g-59.html
  • Ranch, Paul Ecke. ("The Legend of the Poinsettia." 11/14/07). http://www.ecke.com/HTML/h_corp/corp_legend.html
  • The Flower Expert-Online Flowers Encyclopedia. "Poinsettias (Christmas flowers)." (11/14/07). http://www.theflowerexpert.com/content/giftflowers/flowersandoccassions /poinsettias
  • University of Illinois Extension. "The Poinsettia Pages," University of Illinois-Champaign. Urban Programs Resource Network. (11/14/07). http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/poinsettia/