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Poinsettias: Emblem of Christmas Lore, Tradition and History

Learn about the Christmas tradition of the poinsettia and how it came to be associated with the holiday. Also find tips for caring for your poinsettia now and after Christmas.

As we celebrate this holiday season, you are likely to give or receive a poinsettia. No plant is more often associated with Christmas than the poinsettias and more than 65 million are sold each holiday season. We have come to cherish these colorful plants as part of our holiday, but have you heard the story of how they came to be part of our Christmas tradition? 

It began with a legend passed down in Mexican culture about a young girl who was on her way to church on Christmas Eve. She was sad, because all the other children were bringing gifts to honor the birth of Christ, but she was too poor to bring anything. As she walked along crying, she was consoled by her cousin, who assured her that any gift given in love would be acceptable to the Christ child. 
So she gathered an armful of leaves from a common shrub, entered the church and placed them humbly at the altar. At that moment, the leaves of the shrub turned a bright, fiery red. Since then the plant has been called “Flor de Nochebuena” or “Flower of the Holy Night” and as the story goes, since then all
wild poinsettias turn brilliant colors as Christmas approaches. 

The poinsettia is native to Southern Mexico and Central America. They were introduced in the United States by an American ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800s, Joel Poinsett. Hence their common name, Poinsettias. Poinsett, a botanist, noticed the plants growing in the wild in Mexico and sent some home to see if they could be propagated in greenhouses in his home state of South Carolina. He began giving to them to friends and botanical gardens and within a few years their bright and colorful blooms made them a popular Christmastime plant!

So now that you know a little of the history of our beloved poinsettia, let’s discuss their care. They are grown for their colorful bracts (modified leaves) and not for their flowers, which are the small yellow structures in the center of the bracts. Select plants in which these flowers have not yet opened for longest life. Maintain a daytime temperature of 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce this to low 60's at night.

Put poinsettias in bright light but never in full sun. Select areas where the plant will not dry out. If placed in a window, remove it at night so it will not get too cold. Let the soil surface dry slightly between waterings and then water until it runs out of the bottom of the pot. Poinsettias are very sensitive to environment. Drafts, cold, heat, dim light, low humidity or improper watering may cause these plants to wilt or shed leaves and flowers. There is no need to fertilize your poinsettia while it is bloom.

Poinsettias will keep their color for up to several months if they are properly cared for. After they lose their bright color, the leaves will be green. Most people buy new poinsettias every year, but some adventurous gardener types will try to manipulate last year’s plant to bloom again. It is not easy to get poinsettias to rebloom, but it is not impossible. If you must try, remember that poinsettias are considered “short day” plants, meaning that they need a short light period for several weeks before they will bloom. This will require your constant attention and may even require that you place the plants in total darkness every night from about 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. 

Remember, you can ask a Master Gardener or the County Extension Agent at 770-443-7616 or online at http://www.caes.uga.edu/extension/paulding/askanexpert.html

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