Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
The colorful part of the poinsettia is not the petals but rather the leaves. The actual flowers are small, yellowish stalks in the middle of the brightly-colored leaves. A poinsettia grows in the form of a small bush or tropical tree that can reach heights of up to 15 feet. Poinsettias are often grown for ornamental uses. The colorful leaves, which are the bracts of the plant, can grow up to eight inches across, and can be found in a variety of colors including red, white, pink, or bicolor -- although red and white are the most popular in the United States. The poinsettia blooms in December and is a favorite in churches and homes for the holidays. It is a common misconception that poinsettias are poisonous. Extensive research and laboratory testing have proven otherwise. However, the white, milky sap found in the leaves of the poinsettia contains latex, which can cause stomach irritation or skin rashes if eaten.
Poinsettias are native to tropical forests of southern Mexico and Central America, where they grow in the wild as bushes or small trees. In the rest of the world, the poinsettia is used either as a landscaping shrub, or most popularly as a potted plant indoors, especially during the holidays.
Significance to Humans:
The poinsettia was brought to the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. Since then, this colorful plant has become a symbol of the holiday season. The poinsettia is now the number-one flowering potted plant in the United States. The Aztec Indians of Mexico believed the poinsettia to be a symbol of purity because of their vivid red color and were traditionally used in religious ceremonies. They used the red leaves of the plant to make dyes for fabric and clothing, and created medicines to cure fevers from the latex sap found in the plant’s leaves.
- Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University: www.ext.vt.edu/departments/envirohort/factsheets3/indoor/DEC92PR3.HTML
- United States Department of Agriculture: www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/k7244-2.htm
- Backyard Gardener: www.backyardgardener.com/masterg/g-59.html
- Photo by Jan Smith