In case you’ve forgotten, Dec. 12, is National Poinsettia Day.
The date marks the death, in 1851, of Joel Roberts Poinsett, a member of the South Carolina legislature and the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
Poinsett was also an amateur botanist, and he traveled widely throughout Mexico looking for interesting native plants. In the 1820s, he brought back to his greenhouse a striking shrub now known as poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Nurseries eventually started selling the plant, and a century later, the poinsettia had become a nation-wide symbol of the Christmas season.
Although poinsettias seem to have large red flowers, the “petals” are actually modified leaves called bracts. The true flowers, small and inconspicuous, are housed in small, cup-shaped structures surrounded by the bracts.
Poinsettias contain a bitter, milky juice once thought to be highly poisonous to humans and pets. They’re now considered relatively safe house plants since extremely large amounts need to be ingested to produce even mild toxicity. However, the milky juice can be somewhat irritating to the skin and eyes.
The Southeast has its own native version of the Christmas poinsettia, though it’s not as showy. It’s called wild poinsettia, or fire-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia cyathophora), and it has green bracts that develop red blotches just at their bases.
In the Lowcountry, this species occurs in waste areas, roadsides, and other disturbed habitats. The tiny flowers attract a variety of pollinators, from skipper butterflies to carpenter bees and small wasps.
Although wild poinsettia is often dismissed as a weed, I find it an attractive, easily grown garden plant that persists into December, evoking its more exotic relative.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.