Grammar

Send In the Poinsettias, But Pronounce Them Correctly!

Poinsettias are also known as the ‘Christmas Star,’ so this is the time of year where you’ll see plenty of the lovely red and cream-colored plants.

Poinsettias are one of my favorite symbols of the Christmas season.

The plants are native to Central America, but the first US Ambassador to Mexico, a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, is credited with making the plant widely known in the United States. Poinsett had greenhouses in South Carolina and sent some of the plants to the Palmetto State from Mexico.

Eventually, Poinsett sent plants to friends and word of them began spreading. Over time, the plants, officially known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, began being known as poinsettias around 1830, in honor of the man who brought them to the country.

The legend of Pepita

There’s an interesting fable concerning the famous plant and a poor Mexican girl named Pepita.

As the Phoneix Flower Shops website tells the story, Pepita had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. So she knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. She lay the scraggly bouquet at the altar and it suddenly burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.

Some versions of the story call the child “Maria,” but the story itself is largely the same.

The missing syllable

Over the years, we’ve somehow lost a syllable when pronouncing the name of the plant. Many people have pronounced it with only three syllables, as “poin-SET-ah.” But you can see in the headline that there’s an I as the next to the last letter, which means they’re correctly pronounced “poin-SET-ee-ah.”

When you’re used to saying it one way, it can be a difficult adjustment to learn you’ve been wrong. Consider this exchange between Johnny Carson and Tommy Newsome on The Tonight Show:

Another thing worth noting about the beautiful “Christmas Stars” might be of interest to pet owners. Poinsettias have earned a reputation as being deadly to dogs and cats. 

PetPoisonHotline reports that the plant is only mildly toxic to cats and dogs. While that’s still a big concern for pet owners, it’s better than the dire reputation the plant has come to have.

“Poinsettia can be irritating but it is not fatal if eaten,” Poison.org similarly reports. “If children and pets eat it, they can develop a mouth rash and stomach upset. The sap can cause a skin rash, too.”

The site adds that the likely origin of the panic over the supposedly-poisonous Poinsettia was from an incident more than a century ago when a child was found dead near one of the plants. Later tests revealed the poinsettia was not to blame.

That should be at least some relief and may help more people feel a bit more at ease with the thought of enjoying the plants.

Just remember to pronounce all four syllables! I hope you can make the adjustment.

Even more than that, I hope you have a Merry Christmas! 

2 Comments

  1. The irony of this is not lost on me but let me explain: my grandmother always corrected me when I pronounced the name as point-set-tee-as. She would say it is “poitnsettas”, and I would ignore that. I argued that there is an “I” in it. She was intractable, but so’m I!

    I love that you have posted this! I also like the history of it, not having known it. But I feel vindicated in my stubbornness.

    Yes, they are toxic but I know that and so never have them in the house. But I do like them.

    1. You and I are the same kind of stubborn, Aislínge! 🙂

      I actually didn’t know the backstory behind the poinsettia, either…but I checked out several sites that all seem to tell essentially the same story (although, as I mentioned, some call the girl Maria instead of Pepita).

      The funny thing about poinsettias to me is how quickly they rebound if they start to wither just a bit because of water. As soon as the leaves would begin to droop, I’d add about a coffee cup-size amount of WARM water (not cold–didn’t want to shock the plant). The leaves, within a couple of minutes, would be big and full again. I’ve never seen any other plant react quite so quickly.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.