Making my (separate) peace with poinsettias



December 12 is National Poinsettia Day. I wasn’t sure if
Susan would want to celebrate it then or not (she posts that day), so I’m
jumping the gun a bit. There’s a cute post about these ubiquitous seasonal
plants on Neatorama
Go ahead and read it, but here are my favorite facts (all
readily available everywhere on the net and in any plant encyclopedia).  

The common name for euphorbia pulcherrima comes from Joel
Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. minister to Mexico, who brought them to the
U.S. in 1828.

* Apparently, they became associated with Christmas when they
started growing miraculously from some weeds gathered by a devout peasant girl
in the 16th century

* Johnny Carson may be partially responsible for their popularity;
they were marketed on his show and Bob Hope’s during the 60s. That makes sense;
they have a flamboyant, blowsy look that would have appealed back then.  The Ecke family, who bred them to their popular compact form, had a monopoly on
these until the 1990s, and still control 50% of the market

Actually, there are circumstances under which I actually
like poinsettias. Botanical gardens throughout the U.S. like to use them in
displays like the clever one from the
Birmingham Botanical Gardens shown at
top (the image came from flickr, not the gardens). I’ve also seen large poinsettia standards that were nice. Red and pink
doubles and the lemon-lime varieties are also attractive. Sadly, for me, these plants
have become so tainted by their universal use and all the horrible glittery, day-glow
varieties at nurseries now, I can’t use them

Here are three of my favorite alternatives to poinsettias for holiday décor. Cyclamens can be kept inside as reliable flowering houseplants (much easier than poinsettias), while the helleborus niger can be planted out in spring. I might even be able to keep the euphorbia Diamond Frost going long enough to use it as a container plant in late spring. Or not. 

Poinsettia "tree" Image courtesy of southern pixel

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. When I was in Ecuador several years ago, I was astonished to see what appeared to be a poinsettia ‘tree’ growing in a park in the city of Ambato. Wow!

    And, I’d like to recommend a beautiful children’s book called “The Legend of the Poinsettia” by Tomie dePaola. Absolutely lovely.

  2. My husband’s grandma had her poinsettas for years and they bloomed profusely. Never could pry out of her just exactly what she did. Probably was the dish water. No water was ever wasted, all dish water went on the houseplants or flower beds.

    Don’t forget the Christmas Cactus. I have 2 lovely ones that were my grandmother’s. They are at least 40 years old. Some years they are loaded with blooms, some years not. Depends on what window they are in and what their summer on the front porch was like. And if any of the felines played havoc with the buds.

  3. I’ll second the Christmas Cactus (zygocactus) as a great holiday symbol/plant. I started as a new homeowner with a few measly post-holiday sale plants. These days I have literally dozens, indoors & out, typically blooming from Halloween thru February. The white is my favorite because it blooms so profusely, even boisterously the way it spills over the pot, yet it seems so peaceful.

  4. I’m not above a little plant snobbery myself, but I like poinsettias. I have a delightfully garish red one sitting in a silver pot right now, in fact.

    On the other hand, cyclamen just look weird to me – like a tarted up African violets or something. If they weren’t one of the few reliable winter bloomers, I think they’d fade away into obscurity.

  5. We once had a little house in the tea plantations in the mountains outside Jakarta, Indonesia, and there we had an 8-foot hedge of poinsettia. It was beautiful and I liked it there, but I really don’t care for them as indoor plants. I prefer cyclamen.

    Elizabeth, I am interested to see you use h. niger as an indoor plant — I bought h. niger “Jacob” the other day, and it’s in full bloom. So far it’s sitting in a big pot on the front doorstep but I was planning to plant it in the garden as soon as I can get out there — maybe tomorrow–but if I could bring it in to enjoy it inside, that would make me very happy! Will I kill it? What would it need for an indoor life, at least till plantingout time in the spring?

  6. I prefer cyclamens myself. For those who are thinking beyond Christmas I am having a Giveaway – Right Rose Right Place by Peter Schneider and 2 dozen CowPots for seedstarting. Come visit and leave a comment for the drawing on Dec. 12.

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