CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are a number of plants that make popular gifts and decorations around the holidays. These plants first gained popularity as gifts because they represented signs of growth and life during the otherwise dark and bleak winter.
Poinsettias are, of course, the leaders among the holiday plants, but you also have amaryllis, paperwhites and the misnamed Christmas cactus.
In the early days of their popularity, it was a marvel of modernity to have the ability to grow these plants in greenhouses in the cold North American and European climates. Except for the paperwhites, which are a type of daffodil, all of these plants are tropical in origin. It was something special to be able to give these plants as gifts, which is why they remain popular.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
The poinsettia hails from central Mexico, where it can grow to a shrub of 12 feet tall. This local weed became associated with Christmas in the 15th century, where legend tells of a girl who picked them at the behest of an angel. The girl placed them on the altar for the Christmas celebration, and they sprang to life with crimson blooms. The plant was introduced to the U.S. by the first U.S. minister (ambassador) to Mexico in 1825. His name was Robert Joel Poinsett. (Gee, I wonder where they got the idea to call it a poinsettia.)
Poinsettias like plenty of light, so put it in a bright room or near a sunny window. Don't let it touch the cold glass; this can damage the plant. You should water your poinsettia when the top of the soil dries out.
The best way to water poinsettias is in a sink or bathtub, where you can let the excess water drain out. Never let your poinsettia sit in water! This is the No. 1 cause of death among poinsettias. I suggest removing the foil from the pot or cutting holes in the bottom and placing a pot saucer inside.
If you can keep your plant healthy until next year, you can make it bloom again by putting it on a strict schedule of light and dark around the middle of September. It will need at least 12 hours of total darkness for a few weeks to initiate blooming.
There are some misconceptions about poinsettias. First, they are not super-toxic. This information has been blown way out of proportion. Their sap can cause a mild rash in some people, and it will cause upset stomach (and related functions we will not discuss here). There has never been a reported fatality or even a serious medical treatment related to the ingestion of poinsettias.
Second, the colorful parts of the plant are not flowers -- they're just really dressed-up leaves. The flowers of a poinsettia are those ugly little greenish yellow bits in the center.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.)
There is a genus of plants called Amaryllis. The plants we see at the holidays do not belong in that genus. They did once, but scientists decided in the 1980s to call them something else. The public didn't listen.
Plants in the genus Amaryllis are native to Africa, and we do grow them here -- outside. They are those pink flowers that pop up in the late spring. The plants we see at Christmas are native to South America and belong to the genus Hippeastrum. They are, indeed, still part of the Amaryllidaceae family, so I guess still calling them amaryllis isn't a crime.