Your Christmas poinsettia

Did you know?

It’s the time of the year when poinsettias invade our lives.

Scott #1256 Poinsettia

Scott #2166 Poinsettia

Did you know that the poinsettia is a succulent? Yes! It’s true! It’s scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. The genus Euphorbia has over 2,000 species, making it one of the largest genera of flowering plants.

Did you also know that those red leaves are not flower petals. Those simply are modified bracts, or colored leaves. They help draw bugs and insects in to the flowers for pollination because the flowers themselves are very small.

Here in San Diego, poinsettias grow year-round and bloom year-round, and they can get to be a small tree or bush about fifteen feet tall. Here are a couple that I see on a regular basis:

Poinsettias at San Diego State University

Euphorbias are spurges. They have a white, milky sap called latex. That latex has varying amounts of diterpenes and oxalates in it, which can cause skin irritation. If it gets in contact with mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and mouth, the result can be extremely painful inflammation.

If you get this stuff on you, wash it off immediately and thoroughly with an emulsifier such as soap, or even milk. If inflammation occurs, get emergency medical help because permanent blindness and kidney damage can occur.

Consequently, because these things are so beautiful, children like to touch them and smell them. Don’t let them! Pets also are attracted to them, so keep them out of reach of those jumpers and chewers.

My wise old grandmother had several poinsettias growing along the driveway in Kingsville, Texas. My basketball court was the driveway, and sometimes we’d lose the basketball in the poinsettia bushes, which had broken stems at that point. I’d often notice inflammation and itching whenever I got the sap on me but never made the connection. I mean, it was South Texas, full of bugs and such, so after playing basketball for a couple of hours, one expected to be a little itchy.

It was until my second year living with my wise old grandmother, in 1967, that I was tasked with pruning the poinsettias. If you cut them back in October, they will be absolutely gorgeous in December. After pruning them one day, I spent the night in the hospital. I was one great big ball of inflammation. That was back in the days before the medical industry in South Texas understood euphorbia latex, and that incident was my last experience with poinsettias. I have never had them in my house at Christmas time.

Another plant that my wise old grandmother had a lot of as the Crown of Thorns. Notwithstanding its many thorns which make it look like a cactus, it is not. It is a succulent, a spurge, a euphorbia—Euphorbia millii. I do have many crown of thorns because the thorns act like an early warning system, making it easy to keep the sap off my skin. Most of my Euphorbia millii are hybrids, with big, beautiful “flowers”:

Euphorbia millii

Euphorbia millii

Although I have been growing cacti and succulents since 1968, it wasn’t until January 1, 2017, that I started learning their scientific names. Turns out that my gardens are full of euphorbias. Always have been, and they all have that caustic latex. Not all people experience the worst from the euphorbia latex, but I do.

Except for my crown of thorns, my euphorbias are small with large bodies rather than stems, making them easy to care for and easy to keep the sap off me. Here are some of the euphorbias in my gardens:

Euphorbia anoplia
Euphorbia anoplia

Euphorbia spiralis
Euphorbia spiralis

Euphorbia trigona ‘Rubra’
Euphorbia trigona 'Rubra'

Euphorbia stellata
Euphorbia stellata

As an aside, 50% of the world Christmas poinsettia market is produced right here in the Encinitas, about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Poinsettia

 

6 thoughts on “Your Christmas poinsettia

    1. Russel Ray Photos Post author

      Check those plants and gardens! For some people, even the vapors of euphorbia latex can cause problems.

      I’m very sensitive to the latex, but some euphorbias more than others. The poinsettia and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks of Fire’ cause me the most problems, but that might be because they are large stem euphorbias, so it’s easier to break a stem or leaf and get the crap on me. I shouldn’t have these plants anywhere near me, but we don’t always do what’s in our best interests………………. LOL

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      Reply
    1. Russel Ray Photos Post author

      That’s a great question.

      Up until 2017, I had always thought it was a thorn/no thorn issue, even though some plants (roses) and trees have thorns but are not cactus or succulent. I never thought the “Christmas Cactus” was a cactus, but it is. I never thought the “Christmas Poinsettia” was a succulent, but it is.

      It’s difficult to determine for many people, but it comes down to whether or not the plant has aeroles. If it does, it’s a cactus. If it doesn’t, it’s a succulent.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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