Placing a poinsettia in a room is not only the quickest, but probably the most popular way of bringing Christmas into your home or office. While they now come in a wide variety of colors, the bright red blooms are most immediately recognizable as a beloved symbol of the holiday.
This beautiful blooming plant that we’ve all come to associate with the holiday season has quite a history behind it. At one time a botanical nobody, the poinsettia’s popularity has fittingly placed this plant in a category all its own. Following are some facts about the plant, along with the story of its popularity.
- Also Known As: Flores de la Nochebuena (Flowers of the Good Night, meaning Holy Night or Christmas Eve).
- Botanical Name: Euphorbia pulcherrima (the most beautiful Euphorbia).
- Can grow from 2 to 10-feet in height (0.6 to 3 m).
- The petals are actually colored bracts (leaves).
- The flowers of the poinsettia are actually in the center of the colorful bracts
- Native to Central America and Mexico.
- The Aztecs made a reddish purple dye from the bracts (petals).
- There are now more than 100 varieties.
- The sap contains a compound similar to latex and people with latex allergies are generally advised to be careful around them.
- Contrary to popular belief and urban legend, poinsettias are not poisonous. According to the Society of American Florists (SAF), the poinsettia is the most widely tested consumer plant on the market today and research has proven over and over again that the plant is not toxic.
- The sap can irritate skin and cause stomach upset if consumed in large quantities.
- A fresh poinsettia has little or no yellow pollen showing on the flower clusters (in the center of the bracts).
- 85 percent of the potted plants sold during holiday season.
- 90 percent of all poinsettias are exported from the U.S.
- The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 80 percent of poinsettias for U.S. wholesale market.
- $220 million worth are sold during holiday season.
- Poinsettias are the best selling flowering potted plant in the U.S.
The plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), who first brought it to the U.S. in 1825 from Mexico. Poinsett was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, appointed by President John Quincy Adams in 1825. An amateur botanist, Poinsett came across the plant while visiting the area of southern Mexico called Texaco del Alarcon. Poinsett also represented South Carolina in Congress and later served as secretary of war.
Seeds and plants of these early poinsettias were sent by Poinsett to a commercial nursery in Philadelphia – not to John Bartram as the story has been told – but to a Col. Robert Carr who was married to John Bartram’s granddaughter Ann Bartram Carr. Robert Carr then introduced the poinsettia into commercial trade from Bartram’s Garden on June 6th, 1829 at “the first semi-annual Exhibition of fruits, flowers, and plants, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society” – the inaugural show of the now 175 year old Philadelphia Flower Show. At that event, the poinsettia took its first steps into the public and commercial spotlight.
As a result of this popularity, December 12, by act of Congress, is National Poinsettia Day, and marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett.
The poinsettia came to experience greater prominence and commercial success after being promoted tirelessly for the holiday season by Paul Ecke of The Ecke Ranch in California. As part of a family farm business, they began selling poinsettias at roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area. Between 1923 and the mid-1960s the Ranch’s main business was growing field-grown poinsettia mother plants, from which they supplied greenhouses all over the country. During this time, Ecke traveled the country promoting the plant and encouraging other growers to market it as a holiday flower.
As Paul Ecke, Jr., entered the business to work with his father, developments in poinsettia breeding yielded the first commercial-quality cultivars that grew best as potted plants. Through media placements, television and print promotions, the popularity of the plant was growing. The Ranch worked with television, most notably The Tonight Show and the Bob Hope Christmas Specials, to make sure poinsettias always played a role in the holiday set decorations.
That hard work and promotion by the Ecke family confirmed the poinsettia as a national symbol of Christmas, increasing its popularity around the world and making the way for greater advancements in the plant and its varieties.
For more information on poinsettias, go to www.pauleckepoinsettias.com.
Another great resource is the University of Illinois Extension Poinsettia pages at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/index.cfm
- Decorating with Poinsettias (homedesign.marthastewart.com)