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Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) Gave Us the Poinsettia

Did you receive a poinsettia plant for Christmas?  No doubt we all drank in their red, burgundy, white, pink, and spotted presence everywhere this season in stores and on dinner tables.

Photo by Scott Bauer.

In 2010, Americans spent $17B on poinsettia plants and probably a lot more than that this year in 2013, mainly because there are more of us.

The one I had for over a year recently died.  I was aiming to keep it around through this holiday season but it did not make it.  I was so disappointed.  I wondered if I killed it with too much water, not enough light, or by loving it to death. Out of curiosity, I looked up poinsettias to learn about their life span.

First of all, I found out that the poinsettia is not native to the U.S.  When Joel Roberts Poinsett was tapped to be the first U.S. minister to Mexico (1825 – 1830), he tromped around the Mexican forests in his spare time and fell in love with the crimson bush-like growth he found by the sides of the trails.  Mexicans called it Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Flower.)  In Mexico, Flor de Noche Buena is a perennial shrub that grows as tall as 15 feet.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, U.S. Secretary of War, ...

Joel Roberts Poinsett, U.S. Secretary of War, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, first American minister to Mexico, and namesake of the poinsettia flower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since Poinsett was not only a politician but an amateur botanist, he took some samples and shipped the cuttings back to his own greenhouse at his South Carolina home.  Over time, the plants flourished, multiplied, and became popular in the U.S.   They were so fashionable that they needed a name that was easier to remember than their botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima.  In his book “Conquest of Mexico,” William Prescott, a writer, historian and horticulturalist, told the story of Poinsett’s love affair with the beautiful plant and coined the name “poinsettia.”  It stuck.

The story of Joel Roberts Poinsett is fascinating in itself.  World traveler, adventurer, politician, and dabbler in botany, he led an extremely privileged and colorful life.  But his “snippet of harmony” for this blog-writer is that he “discovered” the wonderful poinsettia and perpetuated its presence for all of us to enjoy in the United States.

Now my task is to see if I can do a better job keeping my next poinsettia alive!  However, according to the University of Illinois Extension, I would be lucky to keep my plant 6 to 8 weeks!! Mine thrived for almost a YEAR.  So I don’t feel so bad.  If you have a poinsettia, here are tips from the U. of Illinois Extension pages on poinsettias:

The length of time your poinsettia will give you pleasure is dependent on (1) maturity of the plant, (2) when you buy it, and (3) how you treat the plant. With care, poinsettias should retain their beauty for weeks and some varieties will stay attractive for months.

  • After you have made your poinsettia selection, make sure it is wrapped properly because exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can damage the bracts and leaves.
  • Unwrap your poinsettia carefully and place in indirect light. Six hours of light daily is ideal. Keep the plant from touching cold windows.
  • Keep poinsettias out of warm or cold drafts from radiators, air registers or open doors and windows.
  • Poinsettias require day temperatures of 60 to 70°F and night temperatures of 55°F. High temperatures will shorten the plant’s life.
  • Check the soil daily. Punch holes in foil so water can drain into a saucer. Water when soil is dry. Allow water to drain into saucer and discard excess water. Wilted plants will tend to drop bracts sooner.
  • Apply a houseplant fertilizer once a month. Do not fertilize when it is in bloom.
  • With good care, a poinsettia will last 6-8 weeks in your home.
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