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December 12, 2007 > Poinsettas


Poinsettias seem to be part and parcel of the Holiday season. A while ago, all were ordinary bright red. Now, depending on how traditional you chose to be, or not to be, your poinsettia can be cherry red, dark red, brick red, scarlet, coral, dark pink, salmon pink, hot pink, pink, white with pink marbling, pink and cream bi-color, creamy white, and red with white splash. During my teen years in Los Angeles, our suburban yard had towering red "Euphorbia pulcherrima" across the rear fence. They thrived without any discernable care. In Northern California, I have only seen them "wild" once, and that was in Oakland. So we buy them, little pots, big pots. Tuck them outside for festivity's sake, place around the house for pretty.

From Mexico, a charming legend tells about a little boy who had no Christmas gift to place at his church Holy Family display. Saddened, he knelt outside the church to pray. When he arose, a beautiful plant appeared where he had been kneeling. It had scarlet, starlike "flowers." Because the flowers seemed to resemble the star of Bethlehem, the boy proudly presented them to the Holy Child. So comes the Mexican name, Flor de la Noche Buena, or "Flower of the Holy Night."

Poinsettia gurus will remind me, at this point, that what look like scarlet "flowers" are really a group of brilliant leaf-like officially bracts. The true flowers are tiny knoblike yellow thingies in the middle.

Poinsettias got their moniker from Joel Roberts Poinsett, who, among other titles, was a rather controversial American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 - 1829. It is told that his policies in Mexico were rather unpopular, leading to a slang term "poinsettismo" describing meddling and unwelcome behavior. However Ambassador Poinsett was also a keen botanist. When departing Mexico, he toted some poinsettia specimens to his home garden in Charleston, South Carolina, where he raised all kinds of rare plants. He liked to show them off at his fancy estate parties, to which "only the beautiful and witty were invited." Later, Poinsett became a founder of the National Institute for Promotion of Science and Useful Arts. Never heard of it? It morphed into the world-famous Smithsonian.

Keeping potted poinsettias forever? I've not succeeded. However Poinsettias do last a long time indoors. Keep the pot in bright filtered light, water medium, donate a tiny bit of liquid fertilizer every two weeks. When the flowers die off, no more watering. I put the pot outside and let it be. I've tried digging it in, to no avail. If you wish to try, give it moist, humus-rich soil in dappled shade. Good luck and a Happy Holiday season. Perhaps you will get even more indoor plants as winter gifts. I hope so.

Best for the newest year.

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