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Plants of the Western Slope January 20, 2016

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Poinsettia

Poinsettia

I am weary of winter and it's only the middle of January! I could see the Grand Mesa yesterday but this morning it's only a mass-mess of clouds. But happily, I do have some cheerful plants here inside our house. In all of those Nevada years, I never even thought of houseplants -- but then was then and now is now, complete with winter weather. The last time we went into Delta, I saw a pink poinsettia in Safeway. It's sitting where I often have had amaryllis and Paper Whites. The plant seems happy enough and I'm enjoying the change.

As is often the case, "What you see is NOT what you get." For this beautiful plant is a member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) known for its milky sap and a reputation of being poisonous. The literature often mentions a situation in Hawaii when a child's death was attributed to this plant (it turned out to be a false diagnosis). So although the Poinsettia has a reputation of being poisonous, it's perfectly safe. But I'd rather admire it than eat it anyway!

During the Middle Ages, the plant's milky sap was used to treat fevers, the bracts (what we see as "petals") yielded a red dye, and the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was given to the plant by a German botanist with pulcherrima meaning "very beautiful." Joel Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, took cuttings back to North Carolina and thus introduced the plant to this country where it quickly became popular. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott had written a book which included Poinsett's discovery of the plant and he chose to give it a common name in honor of Poinsett.

For me, the most interesting aspect is the small structure termed the "cyanthium" that is unique to the Spurge family, and in this case it's 1-16th inch. It contains one stamen and one pistil, thereby making it a single flower! What we see as petals are leaves surrounding a number of cyanthia. And all of this mimics a single, glorious blossom. The cyanthia of my pink poinsettia are so small that I have to use my magnifying glass to see them!

Drawing by E. Horn
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Surface Creek
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Evelyn Horn, Plants of the Western Slope
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