Between yesterday and today I taught five classrooms of students about poinsettias. They ranged from second to fifth grade. What follows is some of what I shared with them.
The poinsettia is named after Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico. Dr. Poinsett, whose hobby was botany, saw the plant while on a trip to Mexico in the 1820’s. It was probably growing alongside the road, as poinsettias do in tropical climates. He was impressed with the flame red color of the plant and took some cuttings. As I told the students, Dr. Poinsett must have been a man of some means, as he owned green houses! Upon return to his home in South Carolina, he rooted the cuttings of the poinsettia and produced more plants. Like anything beautiful, the poinsettia soon gained in popularity in the United States.
Besides the brief history lesson, we talked about what it means when a plant is considered to be”tropical”. It is probably the last thing we are thinking about poinsettias when we see them in such prevalence at holiday time in the northern reaches of our country, such as Wisconsin. Truly, the poinsettia is ubiquitous from late October through December. It can be seen and bought almost anywhere. And, likewise is displayed similarly. Most of the students easily understood that a tropical plant would have needs other than what we have here in the mid-west in December. They knew tropical meant that the poinsettia would grow in areas of the world closer to the equator, with more warmth, bright sunshine, adequate rainfall, and humidity. As purchasers of these plants we need to imitate these conditions in our homes. We talked about how to do that as well.
The very basic part of our discussion centered around plant parts but with a poinsettia, determining the basic parts are trickier than you think. And, I intended to trick the students! We reviewed that most, if not all, plants have roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. In every single class, the flowers were the very last part to be mentioned! When we finally got around to establishing that flowers were indeed a very important part of a plant, I asked them where they thought the flowers were on the poinsettia plant.
Well, students in every single class responded, the flowers red leaves of course! This was the response I got and also the one I expected. Wait a minute, the red leaves are leaves….could they be the flowers, too? No. The red leaves on poinsettias are actually modified leaves called bracts. Bracts are leaves that cluster around flowers. Ahhhh, there is a clue! The flowers on a poinsettia are in the very center of each swirl of red leaves (bracts). They are small yellowish-green nubs, not remarkable at all. And the purpose of the red leaves (bracts), to bring attention to the flower – where pollen is found, of course!
Plant names were also discussed with the poinsettia very obviously being named for Dr. Poinsett. But, plants have scientific names as well as their common or lay names. The scientific name for the Poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima It means very beautiful flower. The Mexican name for the flower is The Flower of the Holy Night or Flores de Noche Buena. We talked about families and how just like they share characteristics with others in their family – plants also belong to families and all those that belong to the Euphorbias ooze a milky sap. The poinsettia’s sap can be irritating to the skin.
Irritating is not poisonous, however. Poinsettias are not poisonous to people! Many years ago, in the 1970’s, Ohio State University studied this very idea and found that a 50 pound child would have to eat 500-600 poinsettia bracts to just get an upset stomach! That’s a lot of leaves! No, poinsettias are not poisonous. It is must a myth that continues to be told….and told….and told – that’s how myths get spread, right! The students definitely understood. Still, not poisonous is not synonymous with edible. I was sure to make that point. And, we talked about how pets are different than people and might get sick (or poisoned by much smaller amounts of poinsettia leaves). So, it is best to keep this plant away from pets.
I love poinsettias. I am confident that came across in my presentations in the last two days. Twice in the last eight weeks since being at this new school the staff have verbally recognized my passion for these subjects. I am glad they can see it. The last thing I did before leaving each room was to contribute a book to their class library – Poinsettias : Myth and Legend – History and Botanical Fact by Christine Anderson and to recommend The Legend of the Poinsettia book by Tomie de Paola. I recommend those to you as well.