December 12 is National Poinsettia Day, designated by Congress to honor the flower and Joel Robert Poinsett, botanist and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. Native to Mexico, the poinsettia, with over 50 million sold annually, is the number one flowering potted plant sold in the United States.
History of Poinsettias
The Aztecs called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitl." During the 14th-16th century the sap was used to control fevers and the bracts ( modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye.
Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravan because they could not be grown in the high altitude.
Centuries later, Joel Roberts Poinsett became the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, being appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820's; because of his interest in botany he introduced the American elm into Mexico.
During his stay in Mexico, he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.
Even though Poinsett had a distinguished career as a US Congressman and Ambassador, he will always be best remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.
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While the poinsettia remains the most popular of the holiday plants, a healthy Christmas cactus in full bloom is a great gift idea for that special gardener. It is easy to care for and can be grown indoors throughout the year. The flowers range in color from yellow, orange, red, salmon, pink, fuchsia and white or combinations of those colors. Its pendulous stems make it a great choice for hanging baskets.
The "Christmas cactus" that is grown commercially is actually several closely related species of forest cacti that grow as epiphytes between 3,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level in the Organ Mountains north of Rio de Janeiro in southeast Brazil, South America.
We typically think of cacti as being heat tolerant, but Christmas cactuses will keep their blossoms longer in cooler temperatures. It is important to keep plants in a well-lit location away from drafts of heater vents, fireplaces or other sources of hot air. Drafts and temperature extremes can cause the flower buds to drop from the plant before they have a chance to open.
The Christmas cactus is a tropical type plant, not quite as drought tolerant as its desert relatives and, in fact, may drop flower buds if the soil gets too dry. Water thoroughly when the top inch or so of soil feels dry to the touch. The soil should be kept evenly moist for best growth.
Christmas cactuses will do best in bright indirect light. They don't need to be fertilized while in bloom, but most gardeners enjoy the challenge of keeping the plant after the holidays for re-bloom the following year. While plants are actively growing, use a blooming houseplant-type fertilizer and apply monthly until blooms set the following season.
If taken care of properly, a single plant can last for many years, providing many seasons of enjoyment.
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