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Poinsettias a classic sign of Christmas

Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 11:54 a.m. CDT

No flower says Christmas like the beautiful poinsettia.

Ron Wolford, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, offers a few facts about this traditional Christmas plant.

Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae, or Spurge, family. Many plants in the family ooze a milky sap. Some people with latex allergies may have a skin reaction, most likely to the sap, after touching the leaves of a poinsettia. For pets, the poinsettia sap may cause mild irritation or nausea, though Wolford said the plant is not actually poisonous.

“A study at The Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to have any harmful effect,” he said. “It’s probably best to keep pets away from the plant, especially puppies and kittens ... eating the leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea.”

The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). Poinsettias have also been called the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, due to their red color.

Joel Roberts Poinsett introduced the poinsettia plant to the United States from Mexico. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States ambassador to Mexico.

“In Mexico, the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that will grow 10 to 15 feet tall,” Wolford noted.

With more than 100 varieties available today, poinsettias come in colors like the traditional red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled, and speckled. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70 percent of all poinsettias purchased in the United States and accounts for about 50 percent of the worldwide sales of poinsettias.

Dec. 12 is National Poinsettia Day; it marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.

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