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Poinsettia

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Name

A member of the Euphorbiaceae family, the botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, pulcherrima meaning "most beautiful".

Pronounced POYNE-sett-ya. The common name comes from Colonel Joel Roberts Poinsett of the US army and the first US ambassador to Mexico, who sent the first plants back to the States for study in 1825.

Origin

Mexico and Central America. In the wild these plants are bare-branched small trees.

Colours

Most people know traditional red Poinsettias at Christmas, but these plants also come in peach, pink, lemon, cream, and with white- and gold-splashed leaves.

Care tips

Protect Poinsettias from cold and draughts at all times - wrap them up carefully to carry them home and unwrap as soon as you arrive. They need a light position and a temperature of 55-60°F (16-18°C) but not above a radiator. Water when the compost is moderately dry; don't over or under-water as this results in leaf drop. Water by standing in water for 20 minutes (not more than 30) and then remove to allow to drain. The milky white sap of this plant can irritate skin, so wash your hands after handling it, and keep plants away from young children.

Facts

In its home country of Mexico, it is called "Flores de Noche Buena" – the flower of Christmas Eve. And for good reason: at Christmas time, the Poinsettia’s bracts change colour and the plant is in full bloom! 

In contrast, the French know the Poinsettia as "Étoile d'amour", a ‘love star’. Most likely the Aztecs also used this name since, according to legend, the bracts of the Poinsettia were moistened with drops of blood from an Aztec goddess who died of a broken heart. They believed this was how the plant got its unmistakable red colour. 

Around ten acres of Poinsettias are grown in the UK every year.

Toxicity

The Poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) belongs to the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) family. There are over 7000 plants in this family, all of which produce a milky white sap. Some of these plants are documented to be toxic, such as Croton tiglium and Euphorbia marginata, and as a result all plants of this family are often mistakenly presumed to be poisonous. As such, the Poinsettia has long been veiled in an aura of superstition and hearsay about its toxicity, but very little documented evidence can be found to support this.

Due to its popularity, the Poinsettia is the most widely-tested consumer plant. After extensive scientific testing, it has been found to produce either no effect (whether eaten or through skin contact) or occasional cases of vomiting. (Source: the American Medical Association Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious plants) The POISINDEX Information Service states that a 23kg child (3.6st) would have to eat 600 leaves to surpass experimental doses. At the experimental levels, no toxicity was found. (Source: Ohio Florists' Association)

Having said that, the Poinsettia is an ornamental plant, not an edible one. All inedible materials should be kept out of reach of small children and pets. Similarly, if you have a latex allergy, you should be careful to avoid contact with the sap of any plant.

Sources

C.L Winek, J. Butala, S.P Shanor and  F.W Fochtman, Toxicology of Poinsettia, Clinical Toxicology (1978)

Robert P. Stone and W.J Collins, Euphorbia pulcherrima: Toxicity to rats, Toxicon (1971)

A.D Kinghorn and F.J Evans, A biological screen of selected species of the genus Euphorbia for skin irritant effects (1975)

Stephen A. Carver, Twas the night before Christmas with Poinsettias throughout the house, Ohio Florists Association Bulletin No. 829 (1998)

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