Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 1, 2005)
The Christmas plant – poinsettia
Photo by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
The poinsettia is common in Florida landscapes.
Memories of my grandfather sneaking through the back door the day before Christmas, with a brown paper bag concealed under his arm still brings about smiles. No, it wasn’t that kind of Christmas cheer. It was a poinsettia plant for my grandmother’s dining room table. The poinsettia with its bright red, bract leaves has become a traditional symbol of Christmas.

Poinsettias are usually grown in greenhouses under strict conditions in a variety of colors and then shipped in full show to shops all over North America just in time for the holidays. In their natural habitat they can grow as high as 10 to 12 feet tall. The woody trunk produces a latex based, milky sap, when if scraped or is dripped from a broken branch can produce an irritating rash or reaction to some sensitive people, especially florists that come in contact with the substance on a regular basis.

In order for the poinsettia to form the spectacular scarlet bracts it must be kept in at least 12 hours of darkness starting in October until the bracts begin to form. Although commercially grown as a seasonal houseplant, the poinsettia can be placed in a protected area of our central and south Floridian gardens. Unless there is a cold freeze, they do very well.

Formerly the country of origin is Mexico, but this species is now common throughout the tropics where it is grown as a decorative shrub. In Barbados, for example, the poinsettia can be seen in even the smallest of gardens, including being used as a hedgerow along cobblestone streets. What a spectacular sight this is.

What most people don’t realize is we Floridians have our very own native version of the poinsettia often discovered hiding in our gardens. You may consider it an uninvited guest, this poinsettia heterophylla or painted leaf.

Painted leaf is a widespread perennial. It can be most commonly found in Florida in moist clearings, cleared land and pinelands. Our native poinsettia has wide, lobed upper leaves just below the tiny flower clusters. These leaves are green for most of the year and then turn partially red toward the center, similar to its commercial counterpart.

If left to their own they can grow quite tall and leggy. I had one over 6 feet but I grew it against a trellis due to its very fragile, thin and brittle nature. It seems to perform best when it is trimmed low. To propagate, take cuttings on softwood or hardwood and root them. Rooting hormone may be an advantage. If properly cared for and trimmed the native poinsettia can become a beautiful addition to your garden attracting tiny green bees and the larvae of the cloudless sulfur butterfly.

Both plants are from the Euphorbiaceae family that is commonly known as the “spurge” family. This large family is comprised of more than 5,000 species with a wide range and variety of habitats. Some common relatives you may be familiar with are: the rubber tree, the sweet potato and succulents such as the crown of thorns – Euphorbia splendens and the scarlet plume – Euphorbia fulgens.

Whether you choose to plant the commercial variety or propagate the native poinsettia in your garden, poinsettias will add endless hours of beauty for you to admire if properly cared for. You know, it just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without a poinsettia centerpiece on the dining room table.

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