New twist on the traditional Christmas plant

Poinsettias are the favored Christmas holiday potted plant. While red is still the traditional color, pinks, whites, variegated, salmon, yellow and even orange varieties abound, says Susan Hamilton, director of the University of Tennessee Gardens. Plant sizes vary from standard 4- to 6-inch pots, to miniatures to tree forms and even hanging baskets.

“It’s amazing what greenhouses and garden centers are offering this season with free, professional advice on how to get the most from this holiday plant,” says Hamilton. Some of the new and unique selections you may see include: ‘Orange Spice,’ a true orange poinsettia great for any Tennessee Volunteer fan; ‘Ice Punch,’ a cranberry red with a frosty white pattern; ‘Peppermint Twist Winter Rose’ and ‘Red Winter Rose,’ which have globe-shaped bracts like you’ve never seen on a poinsettia; and ‘Red Glitter,’ red with a lot of white splotches that give a striking look.

“Not-so-new selections on the market — but ones you are likely to find readily available, and I would never hesitate to purchase — are the ‘Freedom’ series of red, pink, white, jingle bell and marble, which have vibrant colors and long-keeping quality. A novel twist on the common poinsettia is to interplant ferns, creating what is called the ‘Fernsettia.’ If you’d like to add some pizzazz, most garden centers can spray paint or put glitter on a poinsettia!” exclaims the gardening expert.

Regardless of the size or variety, poinsettias like bright light and even moisture. They cannot tolerate going too dry. If a poinsettia wilts, it will proceed to lose most of its leaves. With plenty of light and even moisture, they can keep their colored bracts for many months.

Flowers or Foliage?

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherima) does not have showy flowers. Rather, the bracts, or modified leaves, create the splash of color during the holiday season, while the true flowers are small and insignificant. The colorful foliage of poinsettias is a response to photoperiod, the hours of daily sunlight. There are so many shapes, sizes and colors of poinsettias available that there is one to fit any indoor setting.

Are Poinsettias Poisonous?

Contrary to popular belief, Hamilton assures consumers that poinsettias are not poisonous. However, several plants in the same family as poinsettia are poisonous. “The Ohio State University conducted research on the poinsettia plant, effectively disproving the charge that the poinsettia is harmful to human and animal health. Of course, the poinsettia, like all ornamental plants, is not intended for human and animal consumption,” she said.

A Bit of History

According to Hamilton, the first known use of poinsettias for holiday celebrations occurred in the 17th century when a group of Franciscan priests settled in southern Mexico. Since poinsettias bloom during the Christmas season, they began to utilize the plant in nativity processions. It wasn’t until 1825, however, that the plant became known to the United States. Joel Robert Poinsette, a botanist and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, had some plants sent to his home in Greenville, S.C. He shared the plants with other plant enthusiasts and now Dec. 12, National Poinsettia Day, recognizes Poinsette’s contribution to the holiday season and greenhouse industry.

Poinsettias are the top-selling potting flowering plant in the U.S. In 2011, according to the USDA, 35 million plants were sold, with retail sales totaling $250 million.

The UT Gardens located in Knoxville and Jackson are part of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Their mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, collections, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. See for more information.

Source: Adam Hopkins, UT- Jefferson County Extension