Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Christmas Story...

Although the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherima) is among the most traditional symbols of the Christmas season, it was cultivated by the Aztecs of Mexico long before the introduction of Christianity to the Western Hemisphere. These plants were highly prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl and Montezuma, but because of climatic restrictions could not be grown in their capital, which is now Mexico City.

Perhaps the first religious connotations were placed on poinsettias during the seventeenth century. Because of its brilliant color and holiday blooming time Franciscan priests, near Taxco, began to use the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.

Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett. While serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he had occasion to visit Taxco and found the plants growing on adjacent hillsides. Poinsett, a botanist of great ability, had some plants sent to his home in Greenville, South Carolina.

After supplying his own greenhouses, Poinsett also distributed plants to various botanical gardens and to some horticultural friends, including John Bartram of Philadelphia. Bartram, in turn, supplied the plant to Robert Buist, a nurseryman, who first sold the plant as Euphorbia poinsettia. The botanical name had already been given by a German taxonomist in 1833 as Euphorbia pulcherima. The poinsettia, however, has remained the accepted name in English speaking countries.

Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
The widespread belief that poinsettias are poisonous is misleading. Ohio State University, in cooperation with the Society of American Florists, have conducted numerous studies to determine the "toxicity" of poinsettias. Their findings -  a 50 pound child would have to ingest over 500 poinsettia bracts to surpass the amount tested in the study and even at this high level, no toxicity was demonstrated. But remember, poinsettias are not intended for human or animal consumption AND some folks can develop a rash from handling the sticky sap.

How to Select a Poinsettia
Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored and expanded bracts (the colorful parts of the poinsettia). Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges. Dark, green foliage is another sign of good plant health.

Be sure the plant has good shape and proportion. Generally speaking, the plant should be approximately 2-1/2 times taller than the diameter of the container. Look for plants with stiff stems, lots of bracts and no signs of wilting, breaking, or drooping.

MOST IMPORTANTLY - check out the tiny yellow flowers in the center of each cluster of bracts. If it's a nice tight bud or just showing a little yellow, that typically means the the poinsettia is at its peak of freshness. If the flowers are wide open or "gone" pass and look for another.

There are always lots of parties and celebrations during the holiday season. Don't overlook the opportunity to offer your host a beautiful poinsettia as a way of saying thanks for their hospitality.

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