No plant says “Christmas” more than the poinsettia, a native plant of Mexico, which has become the quintessential symbol of the holiday season. Christmas cards depicting poinsettia flowers, artificial poinsettia blooms to enhance outdoor — and sometimes indoor — Christmas décor, and even holiday china painted with this enduring festive symbol abound at this time of year.
The tradition of associating the poinsettia with Christmas in North America began over a century ago when the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico brought the plant back to the U.S. accompanied by a poignant legend. The story was that two children, Maria and her younger brother, Pablo, were always disappointed that they could not afford to place gifts for the baby Jesus around a Christmas manger scene at the village church because their family was extremely poor. The days before Christmas were filled with parties and parades, while gifts accumulated around the manger at the church.
As the story goes, one Christmas Eve Maria and Pablo were determined to add something to the manger scene, and while walking to church that evening they picked some stems of green poinsettia they found along the roadway. They placed them around the manger and lo and behold the tops of the green branches turned an exquisite bright red and the scene became awash in colour. Although other children had teased the two siblings when they placed the greens, the teasing soon stopped when the magical colour transformation occurred. Ever since that time the red, star-shaped flowers of the poinsettia have been associated with the Christmas season.
Although the traditional colour of the poinsettia is bright red, there is an increasing array of other colours available now to suit any taste and colour scheme. The blooms of the poinsettia are not really blooms at all, but a form of leaf called a bract. The bracts are clumped at the top of the plant and turn colour as the plant is subjected to the extended dark hours of long winter nights. The poinsettia is photosensitive and restricted light during the night causes colour change of the bracts. In fact, the plant does produce real flowers, but they are insignificant blooms, usually yellow, located at the base of the bracts.
Take care of your poinsettia during the holidays: keep the soil moist, allow good drainage, keep it warm but away from heat registers, and give it good light — some sun if possible. Display it in an attractive Christmas container and whenever you admire its beauty remember the touching legend that established its association with Christmas.