Christmas can never be complete without the most popular plant of the season, the poinsettia.
The poinsettia is endemic to southern Mexico and is called “Taxco de Alarcon”. These iconic succulent plants bloom during winter when nights are longer. The colors of the leaves are a result of photoperiodism, meaning they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants need plentiful sunlight during the day for them to have the brightest color. Most people often mistake the leaves as flowers that become red with maturity. There are many other varieties of poinsettia that exhibit other colors including orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or even marbled. Their flowers are actually the small ones on the top which are usually yellow or white in color.
The red leaves were used by the Aztecs as a dye for clothes and cosmetics. The plant’s sap, known as latex, is an antipyretic and was used to treat fevers. The most common use, however, was for decorative purposes because of its bold and enigmatic color. Its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima means “The most beautiful euphorbia”.
So how exactly did the Poinsettia become a staple of the holiday season? It all began with the story of a miracle.
Legend of the poinsettia
Once, there was a young girl from Mexico named Pepita. It was Christmas Eve, and it was customary to offer something to Baby Jesus at the altar of the chapel. Pepita came from a poor family, thus, she didn’t have anything to offer for the grand occasion. With a heavy heart, she walked outside the village chapel and gathered whatever she could find. Scattered weeds became her refuge and she fashioned them into a small bouquet.
Pepita was embarrassed as she left it by the nativity scene. Then, something that her cousin Pedro said came to mind:
“Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.”
Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers. Everyone who witnessed it was humbled by the Christmas miracle. Some say she was inspired by an angel to give the modest gift.
Thus, the legend of the poinsettia was born. The regal plant is known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
If you’re interested in taking care of your own poinsettia here are a few tips:
• Prepare a soil substrate that is a mixture of dry and wet components, similar to that of any other succulent or cactus. Pure soil will have the tendency to hold too much moisture which will lead to rotting.
• Situate these plants in a place with four to six hours of sunlight for it to maintain its bright red color.
• Our natural tropical climate is ideal for this type of plant; place them outdoors to keep them looking their best.
• Allow the soil mixture to dry in between watering. Ideally, water once a day except in rainy weather.
• Prune old leaves to minimize rotting of the other leaves near it. Regular pruning will also keep the stems bushy and compact.
• You may re-grow a new plant by cutting woody stems in between the nodes and then replanting them once the cut has sealed. The best way to “seal” a cut of any Euphorbia plant species is by watering the cut with cold water. It is similar as sealing plastic with heat or fire. Plant the new stem after a few hours or on the next day.
• Fertilize only when the plant seems stable enough. Do not fertilize when you have just re-potted the plant. Use a complete fertilizer (14-14-14) once a week, to keep it healthy and blooming.
• Keep your plant in a pot twice its size. This will allow the plant to grow more rapidly and freely.
There is no better season than Christmas to purchase your first Poinsettia. Just follow these simple steps, propagate them, and you’ll be sure to have more of them for the next holiday season.