Poinsettias for Christmas
The poinsettia could have been specially designed for Christmas with its bright-red halo and festive green foliage. However that red halo is not just a pretty face: it's the secret of the poinsettia's popularity. It can last for months because the red halo consists of long-lasting leafy bracts rather than soft petals that shrivel up quickly. This allows the poinsettia to look regal for up to twelve weeks or more. Not surprisingly these ornamental lovelies have been used as Christmas ornaments for almost a hundred years.
Poinsettias come from Mexico and they were discovered by Joel Poinsett in 1825. They were already associated with Christmas however. An old legend recalls that a poor Mexican boy, unable to afford a proper present to take to church, picked some of these colourful red 'weeds' as his Christmas gift.
Their ability to grow and spread in warm countries has seen them colonise lots of different areas throughout the world. In the Canary Isles, for instance, they grow as low hedges all along the roads. They also thrived in the canyons and scrub close to Beverley Hills and Hollywood.
A young rancher, Albert Ecke, admired them and planted them on his own ranch. Ecke began selling poinsettias from Californian roadside stalls in the 1920s. Their Hollywood glamour soon rubbed off and homes all across America wanted their own poinsettia at Christmas, especially when they saw them in the Christmas movies.
Albert Ecke's ranch still produces 80% of all poinsettias grown in America, but the soldier-red ones are still the most popular by far. Thirty different poinsettias have been named and bred, but others seem insipid by comparison.
Looking After Your Mexican Beauty
Don't panic: poinsettias are easy to look after as long as you remember their Mexican provenance.
Keep them warm and away from draughts and don't place them on the windowsill where temperatures and light fluctuate widely. Give them bright light and a warm position instead.
Conjure up the canyons of California in your mind's eye when you water. Feel the pot by pressing your finger into the compost. Water from the top, but only if the compost feels dry, always allowing the water to drain away. You may be able to lift yours out of its cache pot: if it's in a basket water it very sparingly indeed.
These members of the Euphorbia family are short day plants induced into flower by twelve hours of equal day and night length. Once the days begin to lengthen the bracts drop, so expect two or three months of colour.
Can I Keep it For Next Year?
You can, but your second year plant will be completely inferior because poinsettias develop into woody, leggy shrubs. It's much better to save up your pennies and buy another that's been cosseted and encouraged into flower by a regime of good food, greenhouse lights and heat.
Poinsettias are expensive to produce, so much so that British growers are abandoning these high-maintenance Mexican beauties in droves. Despite that, I hope the poinsettia endures for another hundred years at least, for nothing is quite as striking as a poinsettia at Christmas. The last part of its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, actually means the most beautiful euphorbia of all and there are 7500 species. So that's quite a compliment!
Val Bourne is an award-winning garden writer, photographer and lecturer and she gardens on the wind-swept Cotswolds at Spring Cottage.