What would the Christmas season be without mistletoe and fruitcakes - or, for that matter, poinsettias? Over the past century, the flowering plants that bloom in early winter have become inescapable features of yuletide decor. More than 40 million red, white, pink and speckled poinsettias were sold in 1987, according to the Society of American Florists. Sales this year should hit 42 million.

Developed from a Mexican flower, Euphorbia pulcherrima, the poinsettia is named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1799-1851), an American diplomat who introduced it into cultivation in the United States.Used most often as a potted Christmas gift, the poinsettia is a popular flowering shrub in Florida and Southern California, growing as tall as 10 feet.

The correct pronunciation of "poinsettia" remains unsettled, with some people saying "poin-SET-ah" and others preferring "poin-SET-ee-ah." One longstanding rumor about the plant needs to be laid to rest for good, the Society of American Florists says. Poinsettias are not poisonous - at least not to humans.