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December 23, 2019 – Published in Design & Decor Winter 2019 issue

Flowers of the Holy Night

Words Victoria Galea

What is Christmas without the poinsettia?

That beautiful splash of red and green has become an iconic image representing the cold winter air and festivities.

In Malta the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is much loved and grows very well. In fact, although now mainly found as potted plants or small bushes, the poinsettia has acclimatised so well, that although rare in other countries, here in Malta many examples of towering poinsettia trees are still to be seen. There are several down the street I live in and we had one that reached 10 feet in my childhood. In winter we would cut down enormous bunches of 4-foot long ‘flowers’ and donate them to the school chapel.

They do so well in Malta because of our mild weather. These flowers, often depicted against a backdrop of cold winter scenes, are actually native to southern Mexico, Central America, and Africa. They can also be found in the wild in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant in the U.S. in 1825.

They have been around for a very long time. The ancient Aztecs had many uses for them including using the red bracts/flowers to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics and the milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers.

The poinsettia was made widely known because of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first Ambassador from the USA to Mexico in 1825. He had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

An old Mexican legend links poinsettias and Christmas together – it relates the story of a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.

‘Pepita’, he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy.” Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes referred to as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red coloured leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.

Poinsettia care

Poinsettias are often disposed of once they start to fade. With a little care they can be kept all year and will colour up again the following year.

  • Water poinsettias sparingly as overwatering can damage plants.

  • Only water when the surface of the compost has begun to dry out.

  • The flowering life of plants is extended by humidity, so mist plants regularly.

  • Feed monthly with a low nitrogen, high potassium fertiliser.

  • Poinsettias need bright light, away from strong sun and draughts.

  • Poinsettias are often disappointing in their second year, but this is the best way to try and get a good display from them in their second year.

  • Prune back the plants hard in April, to about 10cm, and keep at a cool temperature.

  • Commercially grown poinsettias are often treated with growth depressant or dwarfing chemicals to obtain a compact plant, but plants grown on for a second year will revert to their taller, natural habitat

  • Poinsettias can be propagated by softwood cuttings in May, making sure you wear gloves, as the milky sap can be an irritant.

  • Poinsettias can suffer from grey mould when overwatered, and may also be attacked by common pests of indoor plants such as scale insect and mealybug.

  • Toxicity – It is best to avoid ingestion and contact with milky sap that may cause skin and eye irritation.

Contact Louis Micallef at Green Supplier Ltd, Flower & Plants Growers, Mdawra Road, Burmarrad. Enquiries: 2157 1428

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