New hybrids are changing the poinsettia world
Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become the symbol of an American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to revel in the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were celebrated for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink, orange and even blue.
While they’re now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to the tropical forests of southern Mexico. In their natural habitat, poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like, often taking the form of shrubs or small trees. They bloom in late fall after the end of the rainy season.
Wild poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima
Due to their bright red color, poinsettias have been a favorite at Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600s. But in the United States, the plants were virtually unheard of until the early 1800s. This is when Poinsett, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, stumbled upon some while stationed in the country.
Poinsett was so struck by the unusual-looking species that he began collecting cuttings and sending them back to his family in South Carolina. When he returned home, Poinsett started propagating his own plants. Then he introduced them to botanical gardens and nurseries throughout America.
The fluorescent ‘Luv U Pink’
As it grew in popularity due mainly to efforts by Poinsett, the species became known in the United States as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ The plant’s scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter-blooming properties made it a colorful addition to holiday households. Following Poinsett’s death, the plant was renamed Poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.
The leaf is the flower
Although they look like flowers, poinsettias’ bright red ‘blooms’ are in fact modified leaves called bracts. The plant’s actual flowers are the tiny cluster of yellow spheres in the poinsettia’s center. In order to produce the colorful bracts, poinsettias require a daily diet of at least 12 hours of darkness followed by a period of bright sun. This is a long process undertaken by the grower.
The yellow spheres in the center are the flowers
During the 1800s, the poinsettia remained pretty much a greenhouse curiosity. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that additional colors were discovered. Then in the 1960s, the introduction of more compact varieties led to mass production and marketing of the holiday ‘flower.’
Today in addition to the traditional red, you can now find poinsettias in every shade of salmon, pink, yellow, orange and white. Still other varieties are marbled or striped. And there are more than 100 new cultivars in development.
The U.S. Botanic Garden Collection
One of the best places to view the new varieties is the U.S. Botanic Garden, located just off the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. There are magnificent displays of the tropical plants arranged by color in the entry foyer (part of the DC Landmarks Display) and there are native Mexican ones growing wild in the Garden’s tropical forest. But the real surprise is reserved for the back of the garden. There, in a sun-splashed hall are around 50 unusual varieties, part of the U.S. Botanic Garden’s own collection.
Following are some of the standouts from this year’s 2018 exhibit.
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Autumn Leaves’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bells’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Ecke White’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Red Glitter’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Christmas Beauty Cinammon’
Traditional poinsettias are selections of Euphorbia pulcherrima. But a process patented in 2003 has allowed growers to cross Euphorbia pulcherrima with Euphorbia cornastra to create some spectacular hybrids. Many of these new varieties feature much smaller central flowers, placing the focus more on the colorful leaves. Here are some great examples.
Poinsettia hybrid ‘Princettia Hot Pink’
Poinsettia hybrid ‘Princettia Max White’
Poinsettia hybrid ‘Luv U Pink’
Poinsettia hybrid ‘Luv U Soft Pink’
How to pick a poinsettia
When shopping for a poinsettia, make sure to look for a plant that has dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line. Choose plants that have fully-colored bracts and no green around the bract edges. Green edges are a sign that the plant is older and won’t last as long. Never buy plants with yellowed leaves, which are sure signs of plant stress.
Although bred to be compact, poinsettia branches break easily. Check to make sure no cracked branches are being held up by the foil sleeve. And always remove the sleeve after purchasing. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to survive.
Water well and allow the plant to dry out before re-watering. Avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts. Expose the poinsettia to plenty of sunlight to keep its bright color.
Although the sap and latex of the poinsettia leaves can cause a mild allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals, the plants themselves are not poisonous. As for the commonly-held belief that the plants are toxic to pets, the Pet Poison Helpline confirms that while poinsettias are listed as toxic to dogs and cats, they are only mildly irritating to the mouth and stomach if swallowed.
Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized since it is named after a person. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is pronounced poin-set-ee-ah.