In the Garden:
New England
December, 2004
Regional Report

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The tradition of poinsettias at Christmas dates back to 17th-century Mexico where Franciscan priests used them in nativity processions.

'Tis the Season for Poinsettias

A poinsettia evokes the spirit of the season, and with new color blends in peach, cream, and pink -- and diminutive varieties with crinkly bracts -- you can give a nod to tradition while enjoying a new look. But why is a tropical plant such an important symbol of the winter holidays, right next to Christmas trees, boughs of holly, and Frosty the Snowman?

It is believed that poinsettias became associated with Christmas during the 17th century in Taxco, a city located about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City and known for its silver mines. There, Franciscan priests used the colorful plants in their nativity processions, and a tradition was born.

What's in a Name?
According to the Web site 1-800-poinsettias.com, poinsettias were called "cuetlaxochitl" by the Aztecs, a name that translates to "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure." Their colorful bracts were used to make a dye, and the milky sap was used to treat fevers.

The name "poinsettia" was coined to honor Joel Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist. Poinsett was so enchanted by the plant's colorful show that he brought back samples and began cultivating the plant in his South Carolina greenhouses.

As is sometimes the case, the plant's botanical name has changed over the years. According to one account, the plant was classified as a new species and called Poinsettia pulcherrima. The genus name honored Poinsett, and the species name translates to "very beautiful" or "very handsome." Later, botanists agreed that the plant belongs in the genus Euphorbia, but the common name poinsettia has stuck.

Caring for Your Poinsettia
Poinsettias can be challenging to keep healthy, so don't feel bad if yours begins to flag after the holidays. For best results, keep the plant in bright light with some direct sun, but don't let the foliage touch cold window glass. Also, keep it away from drafts -- both hot and cold. Poinsettias prefer cool room temperatures (60 to 70 degrees F.) during the day and cooler (55 degrees F.) temperatures at night. Soil should be kept moist but not saturated.

If you can keep the plant alive until the weather warms up in spring, you can bring it outside for the summer. However, to get it to color up for the holidays, you'll need to mimic its tropical habitat. The plant flowers in response to the increasingly long nights of winter, so you'll need to place it in a very dark room for at least 12 hours a day starting at the end of September. Even light from a street lamp can interrupt the process.

I've tried this treatment, and after continually forgetting to move the plant into the closet on time or to take it out the next day, I now happily support a local greenhouse and purchase a new plant every year.


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