Pointsettia - [POIN-SET-E-UH]

The pointsettia is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 2 to 16 ft. The plant bears dark green leaves that measure 3 to 6 inches in length. The colored leaves or brachts, which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled - are not flower petals. Because of their groupings and colors, laypeople often think these are the flower petals of the plant. In fact, the flowers are grouped within the small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and they are called cyathia.

The species is native to Mexico, and there are over 100 varieties of poinsettia available. In the language of the Azetcs, the plant is called the "skin flower." They used the plant to produce red dye and also medication. Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as "Noche Buena" or Christmas' Eve.

The plants' association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.

Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in homes, churches, offices, and elsewhere across North America. They are available in large numbers from grocery, drug, and hardware stores. In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.

Until the 1990s, the Ecke family of California, had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technological secret that made it difficult for others to compete. The key to producing more desirable poinsettias is to create a fuller, more compact plant. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, somewhat weedy look. The Eckes' technique, which involved grafting two varieties of poinsettia together, made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant. However, in the 1990s, a university researcher discovered the method and published it, opening the door for competitors to flourish, particularly in Latin America where the cost of labor is far lower. The Eckes family, now led by Paul Eckes III, no longer grows any on farms in the U.S., but as of 2008, they still control about 70% of the domestic market and 50% of the worldwide market.

The poinsettia can be difficult to induce to reflower after the initial display when purchased. The plant requires a period of uninterrupted long, dark nights for around two months in autumn in order to develop flowers. Incidental light at night during this time will hamper flower production. When watering it is important to allow the plant to drain out any excess water. Having a poinsettia sit in water can do harm to the plant as it prefers moist soil to direct water.

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that the poinsettia is toxid. This is not true; it is at most mildly irritating to the skin or stomach and may sometimes cause sickness if eaten.

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