Related radio feature produced by Debbie Johnson. For downloadable broadcast-quality audio, contact Johnson at 573-882-9183.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The poinsettia is the most popular flowering holiday plant in the U.S. Today you can buy poinsettia in a wide variety of colors, including traditional red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled and speckled. However, this brightly colored plant wasn’t originally associated with the holidays.

“The poinsettia was first introduced to the United States as a flowering shrub,” said David Trinklein, horticulture specialist for University of Missouri Extension. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to his home state of South Carolina in the 1820s. “For many years it remained as a flowering shrub similar to a lilac or a forsythia.”

In the early 1900s, Albert Ecke, a member of the Ecke Ranch family, fell in love with the poinsettia. It was sold primarily as a cut flower until Ecke had an idea.

“Ecke developed it into a potted plant and marketed it as a holiday plant,” Trinklein said. “Today it is the No. 1 selling potted plant in all of the United States.”

The poinsettia suffered severe damage to its reputation because of an unfounded story that an Army officer’s 2-year-old child died in 1919 after eating a poinsettia leaf. That myth has hung on tenaciously.

In the 1970s, the Society of American Florists commissioned researchers at Ohio State University to study the toxicity of the poinsettia. “They fed poinsettia leaves to lab rats,” Trinklein said. Rats fed a dosage equivalent to 500 leaves eaten by a 50-pound child showed no symptoms. “They gave poinsettia a clean bill of health,” he said.

While it’s not toxic, the poinsettia is not an edible plant, Trinklein said. As with many houseplants, you shouldn’t let children or pets eat the leaves if you want to avoid upset tummies.

With the poison myth neutralized, you can bring home as many of these colorful holiday plants as you wish. To purchase plants that will look good throughout the holidays, Trinklein recommends choosing young plants.

A young plant will have most of the true flowers, called cyathia, and many of those will not have opened yet, he said. The true flowers are the small yellow structures in the center of the brightly colored leaves. That’s right: The part we find most attractive about the poinsettia isn’t a flower. What look like petals are specialized, colorful leaves called bracts.

After the holidays, when the bracts begin to fall off, you might contemplate trying to get the poinsettia to re-bloom, Trinklein said.

“Because they are a short-day, long-night plant, this can be very involved,” he said. “Beginning in September the following year, you have to give them at least 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness followed by 12 hours of light for six to eight weeks until color starts to develop.”

Trinklein encourages those with green thumbs to take the re-bloom challenge at least once to prove they can do it. But for the rest, sit back and enjoy this festive plant. There will be more available next year.

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