In my back hallway, a lonely plant sits on the windowsill in its original plastic pot and foil wrapping. In spite of my neglect over the year, it continues to survive with lush green foliage.
You may ask, what does this plant have to do with the holiday season. It is a poinsettia a friend gave me last Christmas. A year later, its leaves have turned from the holiday white to green, it is root bound and often water stressed due to my forgetfulness.
This got me wondering how a shrubby tropical plant from Central America became associated with Christmas in the United States. It’s an interesting story.
Popular Mexican lore tells of a poor girl named Pepita, who wanted to give a gift to the Christ child on Christmas Eve. She had nothing of value to give. Her cousin told her it didn’t matter, anything given with love was a gift worth giving.
Growing along the path to the church, she picked a bouquet of poinsettias. She lay the bunch of green poinsettias at the nativity scene, or the altar in another version, as an offering. The tale continues with a Christmas miracle of the plants turning from green to brilliant red.
In Spanish, they are called Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night. This is how the combination of red and green became the Christmas colors in North America. That explains their association with Christmas, but how did they get to the U.S.?
The first American ambassador to Mexico was Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett. An amateur botanist, he sent cuttings to his home in South Carolina in 1828, where they remained in relative obscurity.
How did this plant transform from an unknown weed to a holiday superstar?
In the 1950s, Paul Ecke Jr. sent free poinsettia plants to TV studios across the U.S., including the “Tonight Show.” That brilliant marketing ploy popularized the plant and started wide-spread production and breeding throughout the greenhouse industry. Congress declared Dec. 12, the day of Poinsett’s death, as National Poinsettia Day.
The colored leaves of the plant are not petals at all but large bracts of the poinsettia flower. The actual flower of the poinsettia is the tiny waxy yellow knobs surrounded by the colorful bracts. Poinsettias do contain latex in their stems, a white sticky liquid that can cause skin irritation to people who are sensitive.
The bracts and leaves themselves are not poisonous. One study stated if a child ate 500 poinsettia bracts/leaves, they might not feel well but probably wouldn’t experience any severe toxic reaction. Good to know if you have a cat or other pet that likes to graze on your house plants.
Happy Holidays and may you be well and safe.
• The 2021 Valencia Extension Master Gardener training will be held virtually from 1-4:30 p.m., beginning Monday, Jan. 11, and running for 14 weeks until April 19.
Extension Master Gardener programs educate community members in research-based horticulture and gardening best practices through a network of trained volunteers directed and supported by university faculty and staff of New Mexico State University.
To become a Master Gardener, you must successfully complete the Master Gardener training and volunteer 30 hours of community service to approved projects. This requirement may be waived due to Coronavirus.
In Valencia County, this may be a plant clinic at a local farmers’ market, helping in a community food garden, working in the Learning Garden at the Los Lunas Agriculture Science Center, learning about and promoting seed saving to create a robust local seed network and much more.
You must have basic computer skills and internet access to attend the virtual training. Applications and more details are posted on the Valencia County Cooperative Extension website at valenciaextension.nmsu.edu
Also listed on the website are online classes and workshops offered through NMSU Extension.
• Valencia 4-H Food and Homeless Shelter Drive, November through Dec. 15. All fresh, frozen and canned items are accepted. Homemade or home-canned goods are not accepted. A list of Valencia County shelter items can be found on our webpage.
Donation locations are the Valencia County Extension Office and 4 Daughters Land and Cattle. Please call the office at 565-3002 to arrange a donation time.
• 4-H Youth Open Enrollment, through Jan. 15. New member registration information can be found on the Valencia County Extension website.
For more information on the Valencia County 4-H program call the Extension Office at 565-3002 or email Sierra Cain at [email protected].
(Lynda Garvin is the interim county program director and agriculture agent/extension Master Gardener coordinator for the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service.)