December 12th is officially Poinsettia Day! These beautiful plants that we associate with the Christmas season have a fascinating history. They are native to the warm climate of Southern Mexico. They are found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico from Sinaloa to Chiapas and into Guatemala. They are also found in the interior of Mexico in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero and Oxaca. Although they are Euphorbias (Spurge Family), and were originally named Euphorbia pulcherrima, they were renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima to honor Joel Roberts Poinsett.
Poinsett was the first American ambassador to Mexico, and was very interested in botany. He often wandered the countryside looking for new and interesting plants. In 1828, as he was traveling through the Taxco region of the new Republic of Mexico, he saw a beautiful shrub with large red flowers and took cuttings, which he brought back to the greenhouse at his South Carolina home.
The modern American Poinsettia “industry” was created almost single-handedly by the Ecke family of California at the turn of the last century. This is a great American immigrant success story! From the website Poinsettiaday.com:
“Originally from Germany, Albert Ecke emigrated to the U.S, in 1906 and settled in the Hollywood area. The family lived off the land growing fruits and vegetables but were also, by 1909, selling cut Poinsettias at a stand on Sunset Boulevard. Poinsettias grew wild in the area and son Paul Ecke (Paul Sr.) had the idea that the ruby flowers would sell well around Christmas. This turned out to be so successful that in 1915 Albert Ecke bought five acres in nearby El Monte to grow poinsettias. By 1917 the Eckes were shipping plants to customers in New York and Chicago. When Albert died in 1919, Paul Sr. took over the flower business and though the family prospered, by 1923 the pressures of a rapidly urbanizing Hollywood led Paul Sr. to move the operation to 40 acres in Encinitas.
In 1955 Paul Ecke Jr. returned with a degree in floriculture from Ohio State with ideas of his own about how to move forward with the family business. It took some doing but eventually he as able to convince Paul Sr. to move the growing out of the fields and into greenhouses. Paul Jr and the Ecke family had a secret technique that caused every seedling to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. Paul Jr. also took a very active role in marketing poinsettias, making them visible on television programs such as The Tonight Show, the Dinah Shore Show, and Bob Hope’s Christmas Special. He also had them displayed in women’s magazines like The Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens. By the time of his death in 2002, poinsettias were the number one selling potted plant in America, in part to his tireless promotional efforts.
Here are a few more Poinsettia facts:
- The Aztecs called them “Cuitlaxochitl”. Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, had them brought by carts to adorn his city (what is now Mexico City).
- What look like the petals of flowers on the Poinsettia are actually bracts (modified leaves) and the flowers are only the small yellow centers.
- Poinsettias are NOT poisonous!
- Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada and contribute over $250 million to the US economy at the retail level.
On a long-ago trip to San Francisco at New Years, I remember wandering through the back streets of that beautiful city and seeing Poinsettias growing as huge shrubs in tiny urban yards and gardens. It was the first time I had ever seen a tropical plant growing in an outdoor environment.
If you are interested in keeping your holiday poinsettia as a year round house plant and having it bloom again, the University of Illinois has a great website giving details of Poinsettia culture: The Poinsettia Pages.