Two Poinsettia Legends


(This column was first published in the December 24, 2001 Buffalo News.)


There are two legends about the lovely red holiday plant, the poinsettia.


The first is a Christian legend from Mexico.


There, it is said, a little girl named Pepita wanted to place a gift to the Christ child at the altar of her church. Sadly, however, this poor youngster had nothing of value to offer.


Recognizing Pepita's problem, her older brother Pedro told her, "Don't be upset. It is not the value of a gift to our savior that counts. Any gift, presented with love, will mean as much to Him."


Accepting this wise counsel, Pepita set out to do her best. From the fields near her home she gathered a bouquet of weeds. She arranged the wildflowers as best she could and took them to the church. There she crept quietly down the aisle to the front of the nave and placed them carefully at the base of the creche.


Miraculously, by Christmas morning her "weeds" had turned to a brilliant red.


They were, of course, poinsettias. Based on this legend, poinsettias are often referred to in Mexico as Flores de Noche Buena -- Flowers of the Holy Night.


Poinsettias do indeed grow wild in Mexico, where they can rise to a height of ten feet. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries the Aztecs used them for two purposes. The leaves served as a dye source and the plants' latex as a medicine to control tropical fevers. Only later in the seventeenth century did the flower take on religious significance. Then Franciscan priests began to display the bright red flower in nativity processions.


Despite its Mexican source, the plant has taken on a common name from the United States. President Andrew Jackson's ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s was Joel Roberts Poinsett. An amateur botanist who introduced the American elm to that country, Poinsett also searched widely for plants to bring back to the states. In 1828 he found a shrub with red bracts growing along a Mexican roadside. He took cuttings from the plant and returned them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. From there they were widely distributed.


Today, despite the fact that they are rarely sold other than at Christmastime, poinsettias are our top-selling shrub. Over 80 million are purchased each year.


The Aztecs had assigned one of their tongue-tying names to this plant, cuetlayochitl. A German botanist gave it its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, which carries the appropriate meaning, "very beautiful." Then finally, as the plant gained in popularity in the United States, horticulturalist William Prescott honored the ambassador who brought it here with its common name, poinsettia.


The second legend about poinsettias is that their leaves are poisonous. This one belongs to the category of urban legend. It is quite simply false. An Ohio State University study found that a 50-pound child who ate 500 poinsettia leaves would at most have a slight tummy ache. Despite this evidence, a recent survey showed that two-thirds of us believe that the plant is toxic.


It is always difficult to trace the source of such misinformation. It may be that the idea came from misidentification of the poinsettia with another plant, poison ivy, which also turns bright red in fall and is indeed very poisonous. (Another false urban legend, that eating poison ivy will guard against the rash, may well have caused deaths.)


Maintain your poinsettia by placing it near but not touching a sunny window, by keeping it away from cold drafts, and by moving it to a cool room at night. Allow water to drain from the soil into a saucer and add more only when the soil is dry.-- Gerry Rising

A message from a correspondent who gave her name only as Colleen W. appeared on the web suggesting the following procedure for maintaining your poinsettia and having it bloom the following year: "Repot into a slightly larger pot and water thoroughly. On or about New Year's Day, severely prune back the plant to 6" above the dirt. It will look terrible. Grow it like a regular house plant, but prune it back on the following holidays: St. Patrick's Day, Easter (?), Memorial Day, and July 4th. On the first day of Autumn, start creating dark days. Cover the plant with a large paper bag from dinner time until morning. On Thanksgiving, stop the dark day treatment and one should start seeing blooms (just in time for the holidays)."

An interesting response to this followed from Claudia Perretti of Newburgh, NY: "I have several poinsettia that I have kept from year to year. In the summer I plant one directly into the garden and in the autumn I repot it. It will drop a lot of its leaves adjusting to indoors. I also keep one in a pot all summer in a half sun spot on terrace and then bring it indoors in late fall. They get watered and fed regularly during the warm months outside. I do not do the 'dark' thing with them. By Christmas or New Year they are blooming."