"It's another symbol of Christmas," said Charlotte Grant of Olive Branch, Ill., as she shopped for poinsettias Thursday at Mueller's Greenhouses in Bertrand. "Over the years, poinsettias have become associated to Christmas just like the trees."
The plant even has its own day. By an Act of Congress, Dec. 12 is set aside as National Poinsettia Day. The date marks the death in 1851 of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who is credited with introducing the native Mexican plant to the United States. The purpose of the day is to enjoy the beauty of this popular holiday plant.
Since the 1970s, the Mueller family in Bertrand has grown poinsettias locally. "Poinsettias have changed a lot over the years," said Erich Mueller, managing member of Mueller's Greenhouses. "There were some ugly ones," he laughed. Different breeds and selection over the years has perfected the beauty of the poinsettia, Mueller said.
But the key to the Mueller family's success is a 40-year-old laminated guide the Mueller family uses for growing poinsettia bushes and trees. The guide, which has yellowed over the years, was developed by Paul Ecke Ranch -- the leader in the poinsettia industry who began breeding the plants in 1960.
Around May 1, bushes and trees are planted, Mueller said. The side shoots are pinched (pruned at the tip) in July, and the first pinch is in August. Pinching allows the flower to branch out. The plants are given a second trim about the first week of September. They grow in 50 percent shade until October
"Then we baby them through the time to sell them," Mueller said. In addition to Paul Ecke's guidelines, the Mueller family uses "The Poinsettia Manual," to grow its poinsettias.
A naturally tropical plant, the poinsettia today is available in 90 varieties. "We're always playing with new varieties," Mueller said.
About 75 percent of poinsettias grown by Mueller's Greenhouses are red. The remaining percentage are white and pink.
But a new trend -- painting poinsettias -- allows consumers to get their poinsettias in other colors.
"They're airbrushed with different colors," Mueller said. "And this is the second year we've offered the painted poinsettias."
Using an aerosol paint specifically for plants, among colors the leaves can be sprayed are cranberry, silver and robin egg blue. Glitter can also be added.
Poinsettias represent over 85 percent of the potted plant sales during the holiday season, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
"The story is somebody put them on 'The Tonight Show,' and they started wanting them," Mueller said about the popularity of the plant.
And contrary to common belief, the plants are not poisonous. Extensive testing conducted in 1971 by Ohio State University resulted in a clean bill of health for the poinsettia.
For example, according to POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat 500-600 poinsettia bracts (leaves) to exceed the experiment doses that found no toxicity in the OSU study. Even at this high level, no toxicity was demonstrated.
Once a poinsettia is purchased, the biggest point to remember is not to overwater, Mueller said.
Soil should be checked daily to keep the poinsettia moist. It can drop leaves if the soil become too dry. The plants should be kept away from the cold or hot drafts because they're very sensitive to changes in temperatures. Temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees are ideal.
Exposure to bright, natural daylight without direct rays from the sun is best and usually not too much of a problem in areas where December days are often cloudy. Also don't cut the strings tied around and through poinsettias; they support its branches.
With Thanksgiving over, sales are picking up, Mueller said.
"It's red and green like Christmas," Mueller said about the plant. "It's grown to be the standard."