20. Poinsettia

You see them at supermarket checkouts, or clustered at the entrance to garden centres, a forest of red and green that at first glance – and probably at second and third glance too – looks fake. Poinsettia, the ubiquitous Christmas plant. They cost nothing: each plant goes for about £4 before Christmas, and £1 just after. And I am here to tell you why they are one of the greatest botanical bargains going.

Let’s be honest: you think poinsettia are naff. Most people do. In a world of millennial houseplants in muted shades of green and grey, poinsettia are outliers. You decorate your Christmas table with sprigs of eucalyptus, maybe a few dusky roses. A poinsettia is the equivalent of one of those fibre optic Christmas trees that slowly cycles through different colours. Terribly gauche.

But Christmas is about magic, and these plants are magical.

When I was at school, the mantra was drilled into me: “The red bits aren’t flowers! They are leaves!” I’m not sure why this struck my teachers as an important fact to drill into their pupils; I’m fairly sure it never came up on any test. Anyway, it worked.

A botanist would call these red leaves bracts: modified leaves. They are most often red, but can also be pink, cream, pale green (millennial klaxon!) or orange. The transition from leaf to bract is triggered by photoperiodism: a poinsettia needs at least 12 hours of total darkness, for at least five days, to start changing colour.

If you have kids, you could, during the summer or early autumn, test this: put different plants in boxes for different amounts of the night, and wait to see when the colour changes. Yes, this is the kind of parent I will be one day. Yes, I think this is magical.

The common opinion that poinsettia is highly toxic is nonsense, by the way. If you have a latex allergy, you may find its sap mildly irritating. If your dog or cat eats several leaves, they may have a mildly upset stomach. But that’s about it. Don’t believe any of the calumnies against this plant.

If I’ve convinced you to get a poinsettia of your own, bear in mind they hail from Mexico. That means they prefer warmer conditions – above 15ºC – and strong (but filtered) daytime light. The better the light, the more colourful the bracts will be.

And if you do indulge, please remember: a poinsettia can be for life, not just for Christmas.


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