It’s the time of the year when poinsettias invade our lives.
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:
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”:
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 trigona ‘Rubra’
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.