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Behold the nativity flower


As we are now entering the festive season it seems apt to look at a few members of the floral world we particularly associate with Christmas.

The first is actually a native of Mexico, where it is used to decorate churches at Christmas, and is named flor de la moche Buena, or ‘nativity flower’. We know this plant as Poinsettia, a houseplant grown not for its flowers but for its brightly coloured bracts.

The Poinsettia was named after Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett, a United States ambassador to the newly independent Republic of Mexico from 1825 to 1829. A keen botanist and gardener, he sent the Poinsettia up to North America, where it soon gained popularly as a Christmas pot plant, or even seasonal bedding in the warmer areas.

The Poinsettia is a member of the Euphorbia, or spurge, family, which has representatives in almost all parts of the world. The name ‘spurge’ comes from the Old French aspurge, and was one of the powerful purgatives used in the Middle Ages to rid the body of ‘evil humors’ like black bile and melancholy.

But this powerful purgative is the milky sap, characteristic of the spurge family, a deterrent to anything that may fancy a nibble as it is toxic in any quantity. The sap from broken stems can also lead to a blistery rash...hence they often get a bad reputation as being poisonous and irritant. They are simply trying to protect themselves, so give them respect for this. However, worth noting if you have young children or pets that are likely to eat your plants!

The Poinsettia is what is known as a ‘short day plant’. This means it requires long nights of over 14 hours to initiate the flowers. This happens naturally in its native tropical Mexico, where it grows at the edge of the forest and makes an impressive shrub of three metres (10ft) or more in height. The colourful bracts will attract pollinators, including hummingbirds, which would otherwise overlook the insignificant flowers in their centre.

The Poinsettias for sale in this country have been grown in greenhouses, with the day length carefully controlled to ensure colour in time for Christmas. Over the years they have been bred to offer an increased range of bract colour; orange, salmon, pink, purple or white, as well as the traditional red. Neat compact plants are required for pot plants and, as well as many years of breeding, the use of supplementary lighting and growth regulators all help to achieve this.

In the home, they require warm conditions – coming from Mexico may have given you a clue!

If you want a pot plant for a draughty hall, or a cool room, these are not for you. Likewise, a chill between purchase and getting them in the house will almost certainly result in dropped leaves.

Out of direct light (not on a sunny windowsill) in a warm room (15-25C), never allowing the compost to completely dry out – and you will have a happy Poinsettia which will give colour well beyond the Christmas season.

• Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre) teaches RHS courses at all levels. For more information visit: www.maneaschoolofgardening.com or email: msog@btinternet.com

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