Mexico has contributed many of the colorful cultivated flowering plants in our gardens, including some of the easiest for children to grow successfully from seed like cosmos, four o'clock, marigold, morning glory and zinnia.
One plant native to Mexico, the poinsettia, might have remained south of the border had it not attracted the attention of a South Carolinian.
The story of the flower's migration and its influence on two countries is a history lesson to share with children during Christmastide. Joel Poinsett, a Charlestonian and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), was an avid amateur botanist. While exploring Taxco, he discovered a plant with "painted leaves" classified as Euphorba pulcherrima. He sent specimens back to South Carolina for propagation at his Greenville greenhouse and shared cuttings with plantsmen and botanical gardens throughout the U.S. Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia was the first commercial nursery to grow the poinsettia outside of Mexico and introduced the plant to the public at the first Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829.
William Prescott, horticulturist and historian, coined the common name "poinsettia" to honor Poinsett's discovery.
The wild poinsettia found by Poinsett grows 10 to 12 feet tall and barely resembles the ornamental cultivars of today. Thirty years of breeding and selection on the Ecke Ranch in California led to the development of the lush, compact potted plant sold at garden centers and grocery stores. The Ecke Ranch is responsible for 70 percent of U.S.-grown poinsettias.
Congress declared Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day, a day to enjoy the beauty of the festive holiday plant. The date marks the death of Joel Poinsett, who is buried in Sumter County.
National Poinsettia Day gives teachers and parents an opportunity to introduce history through a familiar plant. Flor de la Noche Buena, flower of the Holy Night, is one way Mexican children refer to the plant. In the 13th through 15th centuries, Aztecs cultivated poinsettias to extract the white sap or latex to treat fevers and to produce a red dye from the leaves for cotton fabrics and cosmetics. Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, Franciscan padres near Taxco began the tradition of using the flowers in Nativity processions.
Over the years a legend connecting the poinsettia and the Nativity was told from generation to generation. The legend speaks of a young child from a poor family who feels upset by not having anything to offer the baby Jesus. On the path to the Christmas Eve service the child picks some weeds and takes them into the church, placing them around the manger and praying. The weeds erupt into sparkling star-shaped blossoms, flor de la noche buena. Three children's books retell the beautiful legend and acquaint children with the culture through illustrations and words: "The Gift of the Poinsettia," by Pat Mora and Charles Ramirez Berg; "The Legend of the Poinsettia," by Tomie dePaola; and "The Miracle of the First Poinsettia," by Joanne Oppenheim.
How can you and your youngsters ensure this year's holiday poinsettias will be around for the 2010 holiday season? First, it helps to know that the color on a poinsettia is not on petals but on bracts or modified leaves. The bracts of a poinsettia look like and function like petals in luring insects. Poinsettia flowers like those of the dogwood are inconspicuous yellow and green structures nested in the center of the bracts.
Your goal is to keep colorful bracts coming until early spring. How? Bright light for six hours per day, draft free location with a temperature of 60-70 degrees and water only when the surface feels dry suit newly acquired plants. Feed plants with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer every two-three weeks according to package directions. When bracts start to fade in March or April, stop feeding, prune back stems to 6 inches and keep the soil dry until new growth appears. In June transplant to the next size pot and return to the window or place outdoors. Water and resume feeding. Pinch new growth back 1-2 inches in July and again in August.
In fall bring plants indoors before the onset of cool nights. In mid-September begin a schedule of 14 hours of darkness and 10 hours of daylight for 8-10 weeks. When bracts appear, resume regular household lighting. Your plant should be ready for the holiday season!