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Christmas Poinsettias

Submitted by on November 26, 2010 – 7:54 pmNo Comment

Poinsettia fans are getting ready to celebrate National Poinsettia Day on December 12.

The day (said to be declared by an act of the United States Congress — although your Road Trips Gardener could find no details on that — marks the 1851 death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the native Mexican plant to the United States in 1828.

Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, appointed in the 1820s. During his stay, Poinsett wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828, he found a shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and sent them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.

According to the University of Illinois, the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name, which means “very beautiful.”

In 1843, William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked to give the Euphorbia pulcherrima a new name as it became more popular. Prescott had just published a book called the Conquest of Mexico in which he detailed Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. Prescott named the plant the poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett.

According to Wikipedia, poinsettias are shrubs or small trees, typically reaching a height of 2 to 16 feet. The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 3 to 6 inches in length. The colored bracts—which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled—are actually leaves. The colors come from photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness for 12 hours at a time to change color.

Because of their groupings and colors, gardeners often think the bracts are the flower petals of the plant. In fact, the flowers are grouped within the small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and they are called cyathia.

The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. Starting in the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.

(Photo by Helen Filatova at Free Photos)

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