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Holiday plants full of history

POSTED: December 13, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Our homes would not be complete without a few classic holiday plants such as poinsettias and Christmas cactuses. However, did you know these beautiful plants have been decorating homes for the holidays since the 1800s?

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) were first introduced in 1825 by a man named Joel R. Poinsett. He was an American ambassador to Mexico when he noticed the plant with red bracts growing wild in the hills of southern Mexico.

He loved them so much he sent a few home to South Carolina and began propagating them. Poinsett gave them to friends and botanical gardens around the Southeast. A few years later, poinsettias were being sold at Christmastime in and around Philadelphia and New York.

Now, more than 65 million poinsettias are sold in the United States, making it the world’s best-selling potted plant.

But the days when poinsettias were available in red only are long gone. Poinsettias are available in an endless array of colors, from white to yellow to pink and burgundy. Poinsettias are also available with variegated or oak-shaped leaves.

The lovely poinsettia plant also was used as a fever medicine. The milky white sap of the plant, today called latex, found practical uses by the Aztecs. From the plant’s bracts, the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye for use in their textiles and cosmetics.

The Christmas cactuses also have an interesting history.

A succulent perennial that lacks spines, the Christmas cactuses we see today in plant retail and grocery stores are actually a hybrid of two different species of cactuses.

About 150 years ago, early breeders in England crossed pollinated the cactuses, native to the South American tropics of Brazil and mountainous rain forests. The cactuses became popular in 19th century Victorian England to give as holiday gifts.

The Christmas cactuses and poinsettias are tied to the day length and darkness. The plants require cues from the environment to regulate the timing of certain events such as flowering. This function, called photoperiodism, occurs when the plants initiate flowering or changing color of leaves in response to relative lengths of daylight and darkness.

In the winter, days are shorter and nights longer. It is actually the longer period of darkness that stimulates the growth and changes.

Poinsettias can last for years as foliage plants. The colorful display isn’t actually from flowers. The beautiful red, pink and ivory “petals” are really leaves that have experienced a strict schedule of light and dark periods under greenhouse conditions. Poinsettias can maintain their color for several months with proper conditions such as bright, indirect light every day, frequent watering and a stable temperature between 65 and 70 degrees.

When the leaves begin to fade and fall, cut the plant back 10 inches and move it into a larger pot. When the last frost has past, poinsettias can live outdoors in a sheltered place until the next cold season.

Holiday cactuses usually bloom between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They will continue to bloom for six weeks if they have plenty of bright sunlight and moderate moisture. A sunny, south facing window is ideal.

When the blooms fade, pluck them off and give the plant a dose of houseplant fertilizer. When all chances of frost have past, the holiday cactuses can live outdoors in a semi-shaded spot.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Wanda Cannon serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the UGA Extension office in Hall County. Contact her at 770-535-8293 or wcannon@hallcounty.org. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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