15 December, 2009

Debunking The Poisonous Poinsettia

Millions of poinsettias are purchased each year as a celebration of the Christmas holiday. Nothing says "holiday" like a bright red poinsettia. They make excellent gifts for the host of the holiday dinner. As well they grace many entrances to commercial establishments as well. The poinsettias history is steeped in mystery and a little trickery. Poinsettias colorful show are not flowers but colored leaves called bracts. In fact the flower itself is not very showy at all. Poinsettias also are not supposed to "bloom" this time of year. They are coaxed into turning colors by controlling the amount of light they receive. To further add to the intrigue it turns out that poinsettias are not poisonous at all. So where did this colorful harbinger of the holidays come from and how did it gets its' shady reputation?
Poinsettias are native to an area in Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon.  Aztecs put this plant to practical use using it for dyes and medicinal purposes. Its milky white sap was used in a formulation to treat fevers. Joel Roberts Poinsett an early ambassador to Mexico discovered this plant growing in Mexico and brought it back to his hot house in South Carolina. Poinsett then began making cuttings and giving them to his friends. He later founded the Smithsonian Institution. Without Poinsetts' interest in the plant Poinsettias would be but a biological oddity to us in the temperate regions of the world.
Until recently poinsettias were considered poisonous. As late as 1995 some 66% of people surveyed still believed the plant to be toxic. This urban legend began some 80 years earlier when a doctor believed the death of an Army officers' 2 year old child to be caused by ingestion of poinsettias leaves. According to POISINDEX, a child would have to eat 500-600 leaves to even get an upset stomach. Further complicating the chance of this happening is that the sticky milky sap gives off a terrible taste making even eating a few leaves unlikely.
Caring for a poinsettia is much easier than dispelling its shady past. Poinsettias like bright warm rooms with no drafts. Watering needs be done only when dry to the touch on the surface of the soil. To prolong the beautiful colors keep temps between 60*F and 72*F. It is possible, with a little care, to get your poinsettia blooming again for next Christmas.  After colors fade in February cut stems back to 8 inches. Hold off on fertilizing until July. At this time it may be necessary to repot it into a pot a little larger. Poinsettias do well outside in light shade providing night time temps stay above 50*F. When the dog days of August strike cut stems back leaving only three leaves per shoot. From September 20th thru December first Poinsettias must be in the dark from 5PM to 8AM the next day. It is very important to follow this schedule in order to get the colors back on the bracts.
Poinsettias official name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. Today there are myriads of styles and colors.
The new rage is "painted" poinsettias where the leaves are hand painted bright colors. Red though still popular often gives way to white; burgundy and even yellow bract varieties. A multicolored bract variety is named after the painter Monet because of the color patterns.

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