It was 191 years ago that U.S. Ambassador to South America Joel Poinsett brought the plant we now know as the poinsettia to the United States. There is no way he could have dreamed of all of the colors, shapes, treatments or enhancements you find with today’s poinsettias. Ambassador, we thank you for your vision.
Recently I was at a high-end food market and was mesmerized by all of the different choices of poinsettias they were offering their customers. One in particular that amazed me was a red poinsettia that looked as if it had a light dusting of ice crystals. I am also thrilled to see the poinsettia has made it to the status of a Black Friday tradition, too, as customers load up baskets of poinsettias.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel right after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The Israel tour was an agricultural event hosted by Israel, but one the most memorable moments was standing alongside poinsettias that were 15 feet tall. Whether the plants are a foot or giant-sized, they all have the ability to thrill.
When I was director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we took the opportunity to maximize the use of poinsettias in its December Nights and Holiday Lights celebration. They were displayed differently every year and always brought out the cameras.
No matter how you choose to use them, the poinsettia becomes one of the most treasured Christmas traditions. Legend has it that the tradition started long ago, when they were called Flores de Noche Buena (flowers of the holy night) because of the legend of Pepita and Pedro.
The story is that a little girl in Mexico, named Pepita, and her cousin, Pedro, were on their way to church in honor of the Christ child. Pepita was poor and had no money for gifts. On the way to church she picked a bouquet of wildflowers, and as she laid them lovingly on the altar, they turned into beautiful poinsettias, hence the name Flores de Noche Buena.
The colorful parts of a poinsettia are actually modified leaves known as bracts. The true flowers are the small, yellow buttons in the centers of the bracts. The traditional color may be red, but varieties today have reached staggering numbers. It is not uncommon for there to be over 200 varieties in annual university trials.
If you are like me, we are like kids in a candy store when it comes to poinsettias — we love them all, and need three of each. Give me some Monet and Ice Punch. Oh, and that elegant Vision of Grandeur. And I need seven of the Carousel and five of the Winter Rose.
Poinsettias can hold their color well past Christmas, if you shop wisely. Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored and expanded bracts, and small green flower buds. Select plants with dark green foliage down to the soil line. This indicates a healthy root system. As a rule of thumb, poinsettias should be 2½ times bigger than their pots. In other words, a 15- to 18-inch-tall plant looks best in a 6-inch container.
If you find yourself late with decorating or needing poinsettias for the visitors that are about to arrive, have no fear. Look for strong, stiff stems, good leaf and bract retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Carefully inspect packaged poinsettias before purchasing them. With the busy holiday season, forgetting to water can be disastrous for a poinsettia. Feel the soil, and water when it is dry to the touch.
Norman Winter is a horticulturist, garden speaker and author of “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Instagram @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.