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POINSETTIA EMBODIES COLORS - AND SPIRIT - OF CHRISTMAS

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Traditional red and green Christmas colors are brightly displayed with the brilliant poinsettia plants. Poinsettias now show off a wide range of colors. The newest, introduced this year, is Eckespoint Monet, with multicolored cranberry red, rose and cream-colored bracts in dark to light tones. It was named after and inspired by the work of the famous impressionistic painter. There has been such a demand for this variety, that you may have to wait until 1995 to find one for your home. Fortunately, there are plenty of other beautiful colors available, including pinks, yellows and multicolored varieties with striking speckled foliage and novelty appeal.

The poinsettia had its beginnings in Mexico near present-day Taxco. The Aztecs cultivated this plant and called it "Cuetlaxochitle." Due to the brilliant color, it was the symbol of purity to the Indians. It was imported by king Montezuma because it could not be grown in the capital city, which is now Mexico City, due to the high altitude and climate. The Aztecs made a reddish-purple dye out of the bracts of the plant and also extracted medicine for fever from the plant's latex.According to legend, a young Mexican girl named Pepita was very sad. More than anything, she wanted to give a fine present to the Christ Child at the church service on Christmas Eve. She was very poor and had no gift to present. As she walked sorrowfully to church with her cousin, Pedro, he tried to console her by saying, "Pepita, I am certain that even the most humble gift, given in love, will be acceptable to his eyes."

Pepita gathered a bouquet of common weeds from the roadside and entered the church. She approached the altar and placed her gift at the feet of the Christ Child. Miraculously, Pepita's ordinary weeds burst into brilliant red blooms! They were called Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.

Although poinsettias don't change color quite that fast, they do "bloom" in the winter when days become shorter.

The poinsettia's namesake, Joel Roberts Poinsett, was a plantation owner and botanist. From 1825 to 1829, Poinsett served as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While visiting Taxco, he was impressed by the brilliant red flowers he found during December. He had plants sent to his home in South Carolina. They did well in his greenhouse and he distributed plants to his horticultural friends. The botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, had already been given by a German taxonomist in 1833. Poinsettia, however, has remained the accepted common name.

The poinsettia's history as a cultivated crop starts with Albert Ecke. He emigrated from Germany to Switzerland, to Southern California and began growing the bright scarlet flowers in fields to sell as cut flowers for Christmas. His son, Paul Ecke Sr., realized the potential of the plant, and in 1920 developed the first poinsettia cultivar to be successfully grown as an indoor potted plant.

From this humble beginning, grew an industry that produces millions of plants to brighten the holiday season. Paul Sr., turned the family business over to his son in the mid-1960s. Paul Jr. assembled scientific and technical knowledge to bring the Ecke ranch into prominence. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the poinsettias grown in the world get their start at this one facility in Encinitas, Calif. Several years ago, I met Paul Jr. at his ranch to tour the facility. In 35 acres of greenhouses, they develop and grow the choicest varieties of poinsettias known in the world today.

Poinsettias have long been reported to be poisonous. According to the Poisindex Information Services, a 50-pound child would have to ingest more than 500 poinsettia bracts to surpass experimental doses. Even at this high level, no toxicity is indicated. Of course, the plant is not intended to be consumed by humans.

A few simple tips will keep your poinsettias looking good for the holiday season and long beyond. They thrive in bright, natural daylight with at least 6 hours of sun. Avoid hot afternoon sun shining directly on the plant. For maximum life, they like a consistent temperature that does not exceed 70 degrees during the day or fall below 65 degrees at night. Avoid placing plants near drafts, air currents or heat sources such as fireplaces or heat vents. They show chilling damage if exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees.

Poinsettias do best with a moist soil. They should never wilt, but overwatering can be fatal. Water thoroughly when the soil feels dry to the touch, and provide enough water so it drains out the bottom of the pot. Never allow plants to sit in water, as root rot will destroy the plant.

Poinsettias will do fine without additional fertilizer during the bloom season. If you want to maintain the rich green color and promote new growth after the holidays, add blooming plant fertilizer according to the directions on the fertilizer label. As an interior plant, poinsettia plants are easy to grow. The real horticultural trick is to get them to come into flower. For additional information on growing and reblooming your poinsettia, stop in or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with 10 cents for a copy of the poinsettia fact sheet. The Utah State University extension office for Salt Lake County is located at 2001 S. State Street, S1200, Salt Lake City, 84190-3350.

This interesting plant adds much to our holiday beauty and color. It's fitting that, at least in legend, this beautiful plant got its start remembering the first Christmas eve. The greatest of all the miracles we celebrate has given rise to many other miracles and blessings we enjoy with wonderful plants throughout the world.