I have been looking out for poinsettia plants, they are just the epitome of Christmas, with rich colours of red and green.

I have to say, at the time of writing this, I haven’t seen any yet - at least not real ones, although the garden centre I visited today was a full-on Christmas masterpiece already, knee deep in fake snow, pine garlands, baubles and jolly Santas, and I felt like I was in a botanical version of a well-known Swedish furniture warehouse, there was no escape on my route, you just had to walk through it all! They had bunches of artificial poinsettias in amongst their displays - and there’s nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add, as they will certainly last longer than real ones, but a real one can be planted out in Portugal, and there is a strong chance it might at the very least remain a viable plant for next year.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually from Mexico and Central America originally, and gets its name from Joel Robert Poinsett, a botanist and the first US Minister to Mexico, who is said to have introduced the plant to the US in the 1820s, and began sending them back to his greenhouses in South Carolina. Prior to being called poinsettia, its original name was ‘Mexican Flame Flower’ or ‘Painted Leaf’.

It has a history tracing back to the ancient Aztecs, who saw the plant as a symbol of purity, and the plants grow in the wild in tropical forests. Originally, they were cultivated for a practical reason—to make red dyes and medicines.

Mexican legend has it that sometime in the 16th century the plant became synonymous with Christmas - a girl who wanted to prepare a gift to celebrate the birth of Jesus had no money to offer a proper gift, and the story goes that an angel came to her in a vision and told her to gather plants and weeds growing along the roadside and to place them at the altar of the church as a humble gift given with love. There, they sprouted red and green leaves, leading the congregation to believe they witnessed a Christmas miracle.

Their colours range from creamy white to pink, to the traditional red, and the colourful parts are actually bracts, which look like petals, with tiny yellow flowers in the centre, called cyathia. Some varieties have bracts with patterns in red and white, pink and white, or green and white and even bright orange. These eye-catching bracts attract insects and will drop after pollination.

Interestingly, the bracts change colour in response to the shorter winter days and actually bloom when the days get shorter. To encourage one to ‘colour up’ in time for Christmas, about 8 weeks before display time, they require as much bright light as possible in order to absorb energy for colour production during the day, but shouldn’t receive any light at all for at least 12 hours a day, perhaps covered up with a cardboard box or put in a dark room overnight.

To keep them blooming each year, they need care - when the leaves begin to yellow or when the plant is no longer desired in the festive season, gradually withhold water, and keep the plant somewhat on the dry side; water only enough to keep the stems from withering. You can grow them outdoors in your garden if you live in a frost-free area, and I recall I kept one going on a sheltered terrace. Whether potted or in the ground, they should be pruned twice a year, first in the spring and again in late summer. I read somewhere that remembering the ‘A’ months is a helpful tip, April and August. For the first pruning in April remove all foliage and cut all branches back to 4-6″ of height. Yes, it sounds drastic, but it will encourage new growth - and use fertilizer as soon as this new growth emerges.

Poinsettias are not to be eaten, though are not harmful to animal or human health - they are not poisonous, but the sap may cause dermatitis.