Decking the halls with scarlet festive blooms
Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00
The red poinsettia has practically taken over from holly as a decorative symbol of Christmas.
Its flowers are the perfect shade of bright red and the pointed bracts have a lively star-shape.
Not bad going for a plant that was hardly known until recent decades.
Poinsettia used to be the botanical name of this plant, dedicated to Joel Poinsette, a keen gardener and first United States ambassador to Mexico in 1824. He saw the poinsettia in Mexico where it is native and he brought it back to South Carolina about a decade later.
In warm countries, such as Mexico or the southern United States, this plant grows outdoors as a shrub, reaching about three metres tall and a bit less across. The flowers tend to get smaller as the shrub gets bigger but, of course, it carries a lot more of them.
Grown here commercially, specially chosen varieties have large flowers and good colour and there are creamy white and pink forms as well as the most popular red. Although still called poinsettia, the botanical name has changed to Euphorbia pulcherrima, the name meaning beautiful spurge.
As part of the spurge family, it has several wild relatives here and many hundreds around the world, including the rubber tree. All members of the family have milky sap, or latex, and this should not be allowed on the skin as it can be an irritant.
Poinsettia is easy enough to look after, if a few basic requirements are met. The first is not to let it get chilled. Plants left outside a shop on a chilly December day, or placed in a draught at home, are very likely to drop their leaves later. The red flowers are actually bracts evolved from leaves, which is why they last so long.
Place the plant in reasonably warm room in good light, not necessarily direct sunlight, and water it just enough to keep the compost moist, but do not let it stand in a saucer of water because this can cause the roots to rot and the plant can die.
If you want to try and grow it year round, which is possible, begin feeding in spring with a general liquid plant food every two weeks or so.
Keep it always just nicely moist. Give it good light if possible.
From early September, keep it in a reasonably warm room where it only gets natural daylight.
It is sensitive to light and can be put off flowering again by artificial light of any intensity, and may have to be covered.