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3 Things You Didn't Know About Poinsettias

When Christmas arrives each year we are filled with anticipation and happy memories. We delight with the presence of children and live our idealized dreams through their eyes and wonders. We fill our homes with beauty and seasonal scents, welcome strangers, and find that being charitable and loving seem to come more easily. 

Occasionally we wonder where some of our wacky traditions come from. Take these red plants for instance...

Here are three things you may not have known about poinsettias.

1. The 'Flowers' Aren't Red

What is regarded as the world's most famous Christmas flower is, in fact, not a flower. The flashy holiday-red part of the poinsettia plant is actually a modified section of the leaf structure called a 'bract.' Although commonly thought of as petals, these leafy bracts have evolved this way as a means of attracting pollinators with color, which is why they congregate around the plant's actual (and less impressive) true blossom. Several species of plants (such as flowering dogwood) share this botanical fake-out, and we as flower-lovers are rewarded by nature's grand reproductive game. In addition to poinsettia flowers not being red, they are also are not white, not creme, not pink and certainly not speckled.

2. They're Not Poisonous

A perennial fear around December is that cats, children and assorted creatures of various sizes may succumb to holiday toxicity if they eat any part of the poinsettia. This is based largely, repeatedly and erroneously upon a QAnon-like tale of guilt-by-association. According to Paul Ecke Ranch (the largest commercial grower of poinsettias in the world), in 1919 a US Army officer stationed in Hawaii lost his 2 year old to poisoning. It was an unusual death, and nearby there was an unusual plant. Although the  correlation ends there, the tale (read: urban legend) does not, and like the ghost of Christmas-past, revisits every December. The Paul Ecke version appears in this Texas A&M publication.

It is true the commercial use of poinsettias is not intended to land them on the salad menu, however. According to the Mayo Clinic, mild allergic reactions are well within the realm of possibility, including eye irritation, stomach upset and latex allergies.


3. They're Not Really 'Poinsettias'

Irony is a funny thing. In the way that we name the world's highest award for peace - the Nobel Prize - for the inventor of destructive explosives, the beautiful Euphorbia pulcherrima is named for a US Secretary of War.

To be fair,  Joel Roberts Poinsett was also a diplomat, a co-founder of what is now known as the Smithsonian, and was reportedly quite a botanist in his time. To this end, it was he who introduced our favorite Christmas plant to North America, and resultantly to the world.

In 1825 President James Monroe appointed Poinsett the first US Ambassador (Minister) to Mexico. While there in support of the Monroe Doctrine, botanist Poinsett became enamored with the indigenous regional plant flor de la nochebuena and subsequently began sending specimens home to propagate in his South Carolina hothouses. An American 'tulipmania' was born.

Today we not only know the Mexican Flower of the Holy Night as the poinsettia, but in the US, recoginize December 12th (Poinsett's day of death) as National Poinsettia Day.



About the publisher: is a New England Wine, Lifestyle Gift & Florist Shop, south of Boston. You can safely order online for daily doorstep delivery in Southeastern Massachusetts, for curbside pick-up in Middleboro, MA, and for USA gift-shipping.   Est.1964

About the contributor:

James Reynolds is an artist, author and entrepreneur who has worked in the banking, floral and retail industries. He holds a B.S. in Finance (Economics & Political Science) from the University of Massachusetts.