December 27, 2018

Interesting Facts about Popular Holiday Plants

By Richard Jauron and Willy Klein
Iowa State University Extension

What are some interesting facts about the poinsettia?  

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala. Poinsettias were introduced into the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the United States Minister (ambassador) to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. The specific epithet pulcherrima means pretty or very beautiful. The common name “poinsettia” was chosen by American historian and gardener William H. Prescott in the mid-19th century in honor of the man who introduced the species to the United States.

The colorful part of the poinsettia, commonly referred to as the plant’s flowers, are actually modified leaves or bracts. The true flowers are yellow to green, button-like objects located in the center of the bracts.

Poinsettias are short-day plants. Short-day plants grow vegetatively during the long days of summer and produce flowers when days become shorter in fall. In order for poinsettias to flower for Christmas, plants must receive complete, uninterrupted darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day from early October until the bracts show good color, usually around early December. (Most poinsettia cultivars require eight to 10 weeks of short days to flower.)

Contrary to popular belief, the poinsettia is not poisonous. However, it is not intended for human or animal consumption. Individuals are still advised to keep the poinsettia out of the reach of small children and pets.

What type of plant is mistletoe?  

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but must obtain water and minerals from the host plant.

American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.

The scientific name Phoradendron is derived from Greek and literally means “thief of the tree.

Richard Jauron is an Iowa State University Extension horticulturist. He can be reached at (515) 294-3108 or

Willy Klein, Organizational Advancement at Iowa State University Extension. She can be reached at (515) 294-066 or

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