Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bright Red and Christmassy

Poinsettias grow as small trees in Maltese countryside

The spurge family is made up of about 2,000 species of flowering plants which produce a milk-like liquid which exudes from the plant whenever it is damaged. 

About 20 species are found in the Maltese islands although not all are indigenous. The best known species is the poinsettia. 

In Maltese it is called punsejetta although many refer to it as the Christmas flower. 

The poinsettia is native to Central America and was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico who was also an amateur botanist. Poinsett found the plant during one of his visits to Mexico and sent samples to his country.

 In the Maltese islands poinsettias can be found growing as small trees in the countryside especially in fields close to farmhouses.

The eye-catching, large, red ‘flower’ is not a flower but a bract of leaves with small flowers in the middle. To turn red the leaves require at least twelve hours of darkness for at least five days in a row hence the ‘flowering’ during the Christmas period. 

As a result of this the plant has become a very popular Christmas decoration and present. The cultivation of poinsettias has become a large industry. Large scale cultivation started about a hundred years ago in the United States and has now spread to many other parts of the world including Europe.

Many wrongly believe that the poinsettia is very poisonous. Such a belief is understandable because the latex of other spurges can be toxic. The toxicity ranges from slightly irritating to fatal. 

Six to eight seeds of the castor oil tree (ri─ínu), another member of the spurge family, are enough to kill an adult. The poison found tin the seeds, ricin, in 1978 was used by the Bulgarian secret police in London to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov. 

The caterpillars of spurge hawkmoths which feed on the leaves of spurges are brightly coloured because their body assimilates the poisons from the leaves they feed on which provides them with protection from predators. 

This article was published in The Times on 04.01.12

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