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Poinsettia – Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Sup Jibi Red'
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)
Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Sup Jibi Red'

Poinsettias are a holiday favorite worldwide, but did you know those vibrant colored parts aren’t actually flowers? Discover the origin and key characteristics of the poinsettia.

Origin

Also known as the Christmas star, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family. Its scientific name fittingly translates to “beautiful spurge.”

Native to Mexico and Central America, the poinsettia is a deciduous, winter-flowering shrub that can soar over 3 meters tall in its natural habitat.

From this species, hybridizers have created a variety of smaller, multi-shaped, and multi-colored cultivars.

Bracts vs. flowers

The poinsettia’s colorful bracts are actually modified leaves that lure pollinators to the plant’s true flowers—tiny, greenish-yellow buds (4-5 mm) cluster at the center of 10-20 bracts that are far from spectacular.

What we call “flowering” is really when the bracts turn color—a show that can last over four months with the right care, unlike the short-lived actual flowers.

Varieties

Red-bracted poinsettias still rule the market, but today’s cultivars come in an explosion of colors and shapes:

  • There are pink, purple-red, salmon, creamy-white, yellow, and even bicolored (speckled or marbled) poinsettias;
  • wavy or curved bracts;
  • dark or medium green, variegated, or oak-leaf-shaped foliage.

Are poinsettias toxic?

The poinsettia has gotten a bad reputation, but numerous studies show its potential toxicity has been greatly exaggerated.

While the plant secretes a latex that is said to contain one or more substances that can cause local irritation of mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, it’s nowhere near as toxic as once believed, unlike other euphorbias. Depending on the quantity ingested, poinsettia may cause digestive issues, acute indigestion (abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting), or diarrhea in more severe cases. When damaged, the plant exudes latex that can also cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals.

Poinsettia is not lethal, but it is not edible. Keep it out of the reach of children as a precaution.

 

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