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poinsettia photoThe poinsettia, also known as the Mexican flame leaf or Christmas star (Euphorbia pulcherrima), is a plant known for its striking red displays at Christmas time. It is often used as a floral Christmas decoration because of its festive colours.

The "flowers" are actually large bunches of coloured leaves (modified bracts); the flowers themselves are in the center of each leaf bunch, but rather small and inconspicuous. Cultivars have been produced with orange, pale green, cream and marbled leaves. It is essential that the plant receives no light at night between approximately October and Christmas. The slightest exposure to light during this critical period will often prevent "flowering".

Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and Central America, where they may reach heights of sixteen feet. They are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant in the U.S. in 1825.

Rumoured toxicity

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that poinsettias are toxic. This has been shown to be untrue; no part of the poinsettia plant is dangerous for humans or animals. The origin of this could be found in the fact that most plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.

Poinsettias in legend

A Mexican legend explains how poinsettias came to be associated with Christmas. Apparently, a child who could not afford a gift to offer to Christ on Christmas Eve picked some weeds from the side of a road. The child was told that a humble gift, if given in love, would be acceptable in God's eyes. When brought into the church, the weeds bloomed into red and green flowers and the congregation felt they had witnessed a Christmas miracle.

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