New hybrids are changing the poinsettia world
December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. That is to say, the day set aside to honor a plant that has become synonymous with the holiday season. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to marvel at 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 are now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to Mexico. In their natural habitat, they thrive in the moist, humid environments of the tropical forest. Unlike today’s compact varieties, native poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like. And they often develop into a shrub or small tree.
Wild poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima
Due to their bright red color, poinsettias have been a part of Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600s. But in the U. S., the plants were virtually unheard of until the early 1800s. This is when Poinsett, 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 remarkable species that he began collecting cuttings and sending them home to his family in South Carolina. When he later returned, he started propagating his own. In time, he began introducing them to gardens and nurseries throughout America.
The fluorescent ‘Luv U Pink’
As they grew in popularity, poinsettias became known as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ Their scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter blooms made them a colorful addition to holiday households. The plant was eventually renamed poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.
The leaf is the flower
Although they look like flowers, poinsettias’ bright red ‘petals’ are in fact modified leaves. 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, poinsettias 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 Poinsettia 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 many different types grouped by color in the entry foyer (part of the DC Landmarks Display) and there are Mexican species growing wild in the garden’s central tropical forest. But the real surprise is reserved for the back of the garden. There, in a sun-splashed hall by the restrooms around 50 unusual varieties are on display, 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 bracts. 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.