The poinsettia is a well-known member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), commonly sold as an ornamental at Christmas time.
It was named for Joel R. Poinsett, who popularized the plant and introduced it to floriculture while he was U.S. minister to Mexico in the late 1820s.
Poinsettia’s botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “the most beautiful Euphorbia”.
There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia.
In warm climates the poinsettia grows outdoors as a winter-flowering, leggy shrub about 3 meters (10 feet) high; as a potted plant in northern areas it rarely grows beyond 1 meter (3.3 feet).
The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure from 7 to 16 centimeters (2.8 to 6.3 in) in length.
The colored bracts — which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled — are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves.
The flowers of the poinsettia are unassuming and do not attract pollinators. They are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and are called cyathia.
A milky latex in the stems and leaves can be irritating to persons or animals sensitive to it, but the claim that poinsettias are deadly poisonous is greatly exaggerated.
The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
Brightly colored, though mostly red, Poinsettias provide effective color as home decor during and after the holiday season.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent His purity.
The ancient Aztecs prized the Poinsettia as a symbol of purity. They also used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuetlaxochitl, meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil”
From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.
The United States dedicated December 12 as National Poinsettia Day.
The poinsettia is the national emblem of Madagascar.
The poinsettia has been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s, when it was brought from Mexico during the Egyptian campaign. It is called bent el consul, “the consul’s daughter”, referring to the US ambassador Joel Poinsett.
In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.
While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild.
An American Journal of Emergency Medicine study of 22,793 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers showed no fatalities, and furthermore that a strong majority of poinsettia exposures are accidental, involve children, and usually do not result in any type of medical treatment.