Why do we decorate with poinsettias during the holidays?

Posted by on Tuesday, December 29th, 2015 at 10:01am.

Whether they’re red, white or pink, the poinsettia’s beautiful, star-shaped foliage are everywhere you turn this time of year.  Churches, schools, television sets – you probably have a few in your home. They are the most popular plant during the holiday season and a big revenue generator for green houses which generate at least $200 million in sales in the months leading up to Christmas.

As festive as the poinsettia seems, it actually a native plant of Mexico, growing wild in the countryside.  You might wonder how it became such an important part of the holiday tradition in Canada and the U.S.

The plant played a part in other cultural traditions before we in North America adopted it as a Christmas theme.  As a tropical shrub, the poinsettia comes in many varieties and if left alone in their natural habitat, can grow as high as 3.6 metres or 12 feet.  The ancient Aztecs used the plants to dye clothing red and used the leaves as a cure for fevers.

The red leaves on the plant are often mistaken for petals. The flowers of a poinsettia are actually very, very small, in the centre of a leaf cluster.  Lesser known names for these plants are “lobster flower” and “Mexican flame leaf”.  The reason why we love them in December is because this is the time of year that poinsettias bloom.


Canada and the U.S. were first introduced to poinsettias in the 1800s.  They weren’t even known by this name until Dr. J.R. Poinsett, an American ambassador in Mexico, discovered them in southern Mexico and sent cuttings up in 1828.  The good doctor was an amateur botanist and wanted family in his home state of South Carolina to see this remarkable plant.  It took a good 100 years to catch on.

What’s the Christmas Connection?

There are a few schools of thought as to why the plant, apart from its obvious red hue, is such a wonderful addition to the Christmas season.  Some say the star-shaped leaves remind us of the star that led the three wise men to the manger where Jesus Christ was born.  There is a traditional Mexican narrative that tells of a young girl who was so poor, she could only offer weeds to the Christ child on Christmas Eve. As she walked into the church, the weeds turned into beautiful red plants.

Poinsettias are Safe

If you have pet or small children, you may have heard the urban myth that the leaves of poinsettia plants are toxic.  They are not poisonous, but could cause diarrhea.

How to Care for your Poinsettias

When you first introduce poinsettias into the home, put them by a sunny window.  They are, after all, tropical plants.

To keep them blooming, keep them in a room that is 19 to 24C during the day, and no colder than 16C overnight.  They like it cold at night, but keeping them in a draft or too close to a cold window can cause the leaves to drop off.  A sparse looking plant was probably exposed to prolong cold.

Give your poinsettia water when the soil feels dry.  Don’t let the plant sit in water or it will wilt.

Our dry Calgary climate is tough of poinsettias. Keep your home humid of water frequently, even everyday if necessary.

After the holiday season, keep watering the plant until March. Then decrease the amount of water you provide, but don’t let the stem shrivel up.  If it does, this means the poinsettia is stressed and dying.  Once the plant is used to being dry, take it to a cool basement or heated garage, where the average temperature is about 16C.  Then in May, cut the plant back to 4 inches and repot in a larger container with new soil and water.  Then put it back into the sun in a room that is 19 to 24C again and continue watering.  It should start to grow again, and when it does, fertilize every two weeks.  By July, you’ll want to pinch it back and once more in August.

It’s very difficult to keep a poinsettia going all year round which is why many people just buy a new one every December.

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