Society & Environment

Poinsettia

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Source: Valter Jacinto

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a flowering plant endemic to Mexico (where it is known as Flor de Noche Buena, or the Christmas Eve flower), and which today is cultivated worldwide on a massive scale as an ornamental potted plant.

The branches of poinsettia can be long and thin, making wild varieties appear very different from the popular potted plants. Hawaii, Enchanting Floral Gardens Kula, Maui. Photographer: Forest & Kim Starr. Supplier: BioLib.cz

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Plantae
Phylum:---   Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants)
Class:------  Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledons)
Order:--------  Malpighiales
Family:--------  Euphorbiaceae (Spurge)
Genus:---------  Euphorbia
Species:--------  Euphorbia pulcherrima

The Poinsettia is most notable for its bright red bracts (specialist leaves associated with reproduction of the plant).

E. pulcherrima typically blooms in the late fall and winter and is associated with Christmas and the winter holiday season.

In its wild form, the poinsettia is a shrub or small tree, growing up to four meters high.

History

The species was known as Cuetlaxochitl the the Aztecs, who used its bracts to produce a reddish purple dye.

Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Euphorbia pulcherrima began to be used by Franciscan priests in the area during Nativity processions at Christmas time.

In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851) became the first United States Minister to Mexico (the equivalent on an Ambassador today). In 1828, while visiting the area around Taxco del Alarcon, south of Mexico City, Poinsett, an amateur botanist, found the plant growing beside a road and took cuttings, which he brought back to the United States.

In 1848, historian William H. Prescott (1796 – 1859) published, The Conquest of Mexico, in which he recounted Poinsett's discovery of the plant. It was Prescott who gave the plant its now popular name.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Ecke family of Southern California played a significant role in cultivating varieties of the plant ("cultivars") with traits that make them more popular as an ornamental flowering plant. The Eckes became the first large scale growers of poinsettias and promoters of the plants in the United States, providing 80 percent of the wholesale market in the USA.

Poinsettias are popular throughout the world, often with a different common name.

Physical Description

The species grows as a shrubs to small tree, attaining a height of as much as one to four meters high, with many branches

The stems are "glabrous", that is smooth without hairs or projections.

The leaves are alternate, have minute stipules, are membranous, and, in wild varieties, are easily shed (are "caducous"). Domesticated varieties hold their leaves much more effectively; an adaption that has been important to their commercial success. In wild varieties, the bracts begin to aquire their characteristic red color in mid-November and remain so through January.

The bracts (red leaves) of wild varieties of Popinsettia narrower and less hardy than those of the cultivated varieties.  Location: Hawaii, Makawao, Maui. Photographer: Forest & Kim Starr. Supplier: BioLib.cz

Location: Hawaii, Makawao, Maui. Photographer: Forest & Kim Starr. Supplier: BioLib.cz

The actual flowers of a poinsettia are the yellow structures in the image below, called cyathia,  that the red bracts surround.

Photographer: Kai Yan, Joseph Wong

Commerical poinsettia cultivars are developed to have a number of traits:

  • Strong vibrant colors

  • Ability to tolerate handling, shipping and selling

  • Foliage that persists a long time in conditions very different from their native habitat (especially in elevated temperature and light)

Further Reading

  1. The Poinsettia Pages, University of Illinois Extension (accessed December 20, 2011)
  2. Paul Ecke Poinsettias (accessed December 20, 2011)
  3. Poinsettia Fact Sheet, Smithsonian Gardens (accessed December 20, 2011)
Glossary

Citation

Saundry, P., & Life, E. (2014). Poinsettia. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbf2707896bb431f6a9590

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