You can find a poinsettia's scarlet, star-shaped leaves everywhere in December. Poinsettias are one of the most popular Christmas decorations around, with more than $200 million in sales every holiday season. But how did this plant from the Mexican countryside enter into the Christmas time tradition? Who brought it to America? Are it's leaves really fatal?
Poinsettias (Euphorbia Pulcherrima) have a rich cultural history. Tropical shrubs, which have about 100 different species and reach heights of up to 12 feet tall in their natural habitat, were known as "Cuetlaxochitl" to the Aztecs and used to dye clothing and cure fevers. Poinsettias were also used in Aztec religious ceremonies since the Aztecs considered the color red a symbol of purity. You know what else the Aztec's did...
The poinsettia's leaves are not flower petals. The flowers are actually the smaller, yellow buds in a poinsettia's center. These bracts -- the upper portion of the leaves -- are famously red, although they actually bloom in a variety of hues, such as pink, white and yellow. Poinsettias, also known as the "lobster flower" or "Mexican flame leaf," bloom in December, making them an ideal holiday flower.
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, 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. Had I known that, I would have cleverly posted this on the 12th. Alas...
But 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"). Why does the Nativity have so many children visiting Christ, and offering nothing but garbage?
A common myth that has existed for generations is that a poinsettia's leaves are poisonous. It's probably not a good idea to have a competitive eating contest with poinsettia - but it won't kill you. Like many things in Mexico, it causes diarrhea. Somewhere I read that some one did research and it concluded that a child could consume as many as 500 poinsettia bracts without any toxic effects [source]. I can't imagine getting funding for that kind of research; and I constantly think about the kid who ate 501 and died.... Now a child who accidentally nibbles on a leaf may not feel well, but the consequences won't be fatal. But try to keep Jr. away from the bright red pretty plant, okay, SuperDad?
However, this doesn't mean that poinsettias are meant to be eaten. If ingested, this plant can cause stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children also may choke on the fibrous parts, so be sure to keep these plants out of their reach. I'm not saying if you hate your girlfriend's cat, and show up with some pretty poinsettias...
Oh, and the sticky white sap also may cause skin irritation for some people.
And don't put it in the cold - it hates the cold. And drafts... what a pain in the ass.
All this for a plant that hit the lotto for matching some arbitrary colors, and bloom at the right time of the year.