Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s hard to escape pyramids of iconic poinsettia plants this time of year. The seasonal red-petaled plant even has its own national holiday, celebrated each December 12, the day that the man who first brought the plants from Mexico to the United States, Joel Robert Poinsett, died.
Though the plant’s green and red color scheme is clearly a factor, there doesn’t seem to be any clear connection between poinsettias and Christmas aside from an oft-repeated, but unattributed, Mexican folk story about a girl placing leaves at the feet of the Virgin Mary at a Christmas Eve service, at which time the weeds burst into a brilliant red. In reality, poinsettias have been around since the time of the Aztecs—long before Christianity came to the shores of their native Mexico—when they were used for medicinal purposes and for red dye.
The most common misconception about these plants is that they’re poisonous to pets, which isn’t true, says Therese Ciesinski, managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine. “Their toxicity has been way overblown,” she says. “Their stems emit a bitter sap, which is toxic in quantity, but it tastes so nasty that most pets wouldn’t take more than one lick.” Fans of the poinsettia plant can follow our advice for keeping this year’s plants healthy—and prepped to bloom next season.
Read on to find out more about some festive alternatives if you’re not a poinsettia person.