Curator’s Clippings Horticultural Tips
Maybe because they’re so closely associated with white snowy Christmases, many visitors to Mexico are surprised to find poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) amongst our native plants. The natural range of poinsettias is from the state of Sinaloa (just north of Nayarit) and distributed southwardly into Guatemala. They are primarily associated with the Pacific slope, that is, the side of the Sierra Madres facing the Pacific Ocean, including the mountains around our very own Puerto Vallarta.
Wild poinsettias are so different from cultivated varieties that many people first think they’re a different species if they stumble upon one while hiking out in the woods. They grow as slender plants to the size of a large bush or miniature tree. In wild plants, their bracts (the bright red showy parts surrounding their tiny, in comparison, unremarkable flowers) are more delicate and spindly.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to the new sovereign power that had recently declared itself independent from Spain as the Imperio Mexicano (Mexican Empire), held an immediate appreciation for the plant that would soon be named in his honor within the English speaking world. It was later when Poinsett was then negotiating with the Mexican Republic (governments changed frequently in those days) that he was introduced to the plant and began sending specimens back to the United States.
Soon plant breeders succeeded in cultivating varieties with longer, broader, bracts in denser arrangements and a range of colors from fire engine red to deep crimson. Later varieties were developed with colors from nearly white to pink, yellow, and even purple bracts. These can either be solid, dappled, variegated and otherwise patterned for a staggering diversity of presentations.
In Mexico, the poinsettia is known as Flor de Nochebuena, which literally means “good night” but is how we refer to Christmas Eve here. The name is not only based on the timing of its bloom coinciding with the Christmas season, but also because the pattern of its bracts are associated with the Star of Bethlehem. The native Náhuatl (Aztec) word for the plant, cuetlaxóchitl, is said to either mean “wilting flower” or “flower of the excrement,” which, either way, is not nearly as poetic.
North of the border, one surefire way for your Nochebuena to wilt is to expose it to freezing temperatures. In the Puerto Vallarta area, that should be the least of your problems. Here most prematurely struggling poinsettias suffer from overwatering, a habit I’ve advised against in past articles.
Remember, most plants appreciate an opportunity for their roots to just barely dry out between waterings. When in doubt, stick your finger into the soil, or insert a pencil if you’re afraid to dirty your fingernails. If you find your digit or writing implement clean and dry, it’s time to give it some water. If, however, the object of choice comes out damp and dirty, it is still sufficiently moist and not yet ready for another drink.
After the Christmas season, you may like to try keeping the perennial poinsettia alive with the hopes of coaxing it along for a second season, or more. Don’t be disappointed, though, if your rate of survivorship is less than ideal. Poinsettias, like many other major commercially grown plants, are propagated in enormous, near sterile facilities, which hardly provide preparation for the many challenges of the real world.
So, as with anything else you grow, plant with care and the greatest hope, but be prepared to handle disappointment with grace. This way, you can appreciate pleasant surprises for what they are and not fret when nature is not aligned with your wishes. Planting for tomorrow is an investment that can bear fruit beyond your wildest expectations.