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Poinsettias have interesting history

KENNEWICK -- Here is some interesting poinsettia trivia to learn a little more about the popular holiday plant poinsettias:

Potted plant, tree or outdoor shrub

Did you know that when grown outdoors in subtropical climates, the Christmas poinsettia grows into a large shrub or tree that can grow to 16 feet? I've seen them myself. One year, my family spent the holidays in Florida. I was just a young girl, but I still remember being impressed with the pretty poinsettia bushes flowering in the landscapes.

The native poinsettia species, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to Mexico where it can be found growing wild in tropical forests.

Flowering

Poinsettias flower in response to the longer nights of fall and winter. This happens naturally when poinsettias are grown outdoors in subtropical climates, like Florida.

In the past, greenhouse growers had to "trick" them into flowering in time for the holidays. In the fall, they would cover greenhouse poinsettias with light-blocking black cloth to keep any light from reaching them.

Typically, growers started covering the plants in late September to early October and provided 12 to 14 hours of darkness each night. They also provided at least eight hours of bright light each day. Some cultivars still require covering for early flower production, but modern breeding has produced cultivars that flower on their own early enough for the holiday season without using black cloth to simulate long nights.

Poisonous

In 1919, the death of a toddler in Hawaii was incorrectly attributed to the child eating poinsettia. Ever since, poinsettia purveyors have been trying to correct the misconception that the poinsettia is poisonous.

Research studies at Ohio State University found that the poinsettia is not toxic and the POISINCDEX Information Service indicates that there is no reasonable poisoning risk to children or adults from potted poinsettias in the home.

How about pets? According to the ASPCA, the poinsettia is not considered extremely toxic to cats and dogs. Ingestion "typically produces only mild to moderate gastrointestinal tract irritation, which may include drooling, vomiting and/or diarrhea." While eating poinsettias is not usually fatal for pets, it's best to keep kitties and puppies from eating them.

Poinsettias are big business

According to the University of Illinois, poinsettias are the best selling flowering potted plant in the United States with more than $200 million worth of poinsettias sold over a six week period during the holidays annually.

The first poinsettias introduced to American consumers were red, but plant breeders have worked over the years to develop white, pink, rose, wine red, orange, apricot and even purple varieties. However, red is a traditional color for the holidays and 80 percent of American consumers buy red poinsettias, with white poinsettias coming in a far second and pink ones are third.

What color poinsettia are you going to buy?

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.

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