POINSETTIAS: Christmas Imagery

Did you know?

  • Poinsettias are native to Mexico and were known as Cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs.  According to one source, Cuetlaxochitl means "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure".  The last Aztec King, Montezuma, decorated his palaces with them.  They also used the sap to relieve fevers and the leaves for making dyes.
  • Poinsettias became part of Christian ceremony when 17th century Franciscan missionaries in Taxco de Alarcon of Southern Mexico used them in the nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre.
  • The leaves are called bracts.  The flower is the yellow or green center of the plant.
  • Poinsettias are perennial shrubs and can reach a height of 10 feet tall when left to grow in the ground in their native areas!  Don't believe me?  Visit Taxco de Alarcon in Southern Mexico to see for yourself.

Selecting and Caring for Poinsettias

Here are some helpful tips to get you the best looking and healthiest Poinsettias for your Christmas decor this year.  Because Poinsettias need space to mature, avoid overcrowding them in displays.  Look for plants that are somewhat spaced apart.  Stems should be firm and should not be drooping or broken.  Avoid any wilted plants in soggy soil.  Soggy soil could indicate root rot.  Once at home, keep in a sunny spot next to a window between 60 and 70 degrees F.  Only water when the soil is dry and never fertilize your plant while it is in bloom.  For cut flowers, keep 4 inches of the stem attached, then seal the cut end of the stem by either dipping it in boiling water or by holding it over a flame for fifteen seconds.

After Christmas

Below are some tips to keep your plant healthy and blooming again for the next Christmas season:

  • In late March or early April, cut your plant to a height of approximately 8". 
  • Water regularly and fertilize with an all-purpose fertilizer.
  • When average overnight temperatures reach 55 degrees F, plants may be placed outdoors, but, should be protected from strong winds.
  • By early June, plants can be transplanted to larger containers or moved to the garden.  Mix the soil with peat moss or another organic matter for best results.
  • During late June or early July, prune to keep your Poinsettias bushy and compact.
  • Re-flowering will begin during the fall.  To ensure proper blooming, Poinsettias need complete darkness at night.  You may need to cover them with a box or light proof bag between 5 pm and 8 am.  Water regularly and fertilize every 2-3 weeks.

Poinsettias are susceptible to disease, including gray mold, powdery mildew and poinsettia scab.  For more information about these and other diseases that can affect Poinsettias and the proper treatment of each, visit http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/pub/php/review/xmasflower/


Joel Roberts Poinsett was born on March 2, 1779 in Charleston, South Carolina.  In 1796 he traveled abroad in Europe and by 1809 had returned to America.  From 1821 to 1825, Mr. Poinsett was a Representative in Congress for South Carolina.  While on a government trip to South America in 1828, he discovered what is now known as the Poinsettia.  Clippings were sent back to his home in Charleston and after he returned in early 1830, he dispersed clippings to friends. 

The Poinsettia's original botanical name was Euphorbia pulcherrima given by the German botanist Wilenow in 1833.  In 1837, to honor Mr. Poinsett, the Poinsettia was renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima by historian and gardener William Hickling Prescott. 

In March of 1837, Mr. Poinsett became Secretary of War under President Van Buren, a position he held until his retirement in 1841.  He was also a founding member of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful, or, as you may know it today - the Smithsonian Institute.  Mr. Poinsett died in Stateburgh, South Carolina, on December 12, 1851.  He is still celebrated today on Poinsettia Day which occurs every December 12.  For more information on Joel Roberts Poinsett or the Poinsettia, visit www.poinsettiaday.com.

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Image Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poinsettia_thumbnail.jpg