Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 18, 2007

An Alien Presence

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

  I want to show you something shocking – something that may shake your Christmas beliefs to the very core. Grab tight to your eggnog and prepare yourself for a breathtaking glimpse of an alien life form which masquerades as a common holiday houseplant.  That red and green thing you call a Poinsettia flower is actually an earthly deception.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the real Poinsettia flower.

  You see, the red petals of the Poinsettia are nothing of the sort. They are simply glorified leaves- called bracts – which serve to frame the collection of bizarre micro flowers within.  To the naked eye, these flowers appear like so many greenish yellow buds.  When viewed on an enlarged scale, however, true Poinsettia flowerets look like something from the world of Dr. Seuss.

  The minute structures are properly called “Cyathia.” The Cyathians are a race of simple flowers which have no petals.  A single female structure- looking for all the world like an anemone perched on a Granny Smith apple – projects from the top of the cup. A single red male stamen occupies the uncomfortable space next to it. The fringed cup, holding the two parts together, has a pair of bright yellow Mick Jagger lips coming out of it and the whole is supported on a narrow pedestal.  I did nothing in my drawing to enhance the appearance of this unique Martian bloom. Say hello to one of the strangest flowers on earth (it just might answer you in return).

  So ugly as to defy description, the flowers of the wild Poinsettia resort to a cheap advertising ploy in order to attract pollinators.  The big yellow lips on the cyathia are actually nectar glands, but the flower itself has no sweet alluring scent. This is where those bright red leaves come into the picture. Red attracts hummingbirds.  The scarlet leaves lure in the tiny birds and direct them to the central flowers for a sugary kiss. Red also attracts human beings, as it turns out, and this is how the plant became a Christmas standard.

  The wild plant grows naturally along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America. In its native haunts it lives as a gangly perennial shrub which grows up to 16 feet in height. Around 1828, amateur botanist and U.S. statesman Joel Roberts Poinsett encountered some wild specimens in the Taxco area while stationed there as the first U.S. envoy to Mexico. He sent some cuttings home to his greenhouse in South Carolina and the rest is, as they say, history.

 Within a few short years, the colorful tropical plant was developed into its familiar potted form. Horticulturist William Prescott initially named it Poinsettia pulcherrima in honor of Mr. Poinsett (here is a botanical illustration from 1836 – a mere eight years after the plant was introduced to the U.S.).  The common name Poinsettia stuck even after the scientific name was later changed.

  Being a political year, I should divulge that Joel Poinsett was a democrat who also did his turn as a South Carolina legislator and later served as Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren. His legacy as a politician remains largely ignored, but his memory lives on in the form of a beloved and bizarre Christmas plant.

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