There are two plants that symbolize the Christmas period. One is the evergreen chosen for the Christmas tree, and the other is the handsome poinsettia, which can be used as a cut flower.
The popular poinsettias had their origins in Hollywood of all places. This is not a locale we associate with agriculture. Yet, this is where Albert Ecke, an European immigrant and the ancestor of the Ecke family, settled in 1920 to grow fruit, and dairy cattle. He grew a few flowers on the side, and that was what eventually developed into what is known today as the Ecke Ranch from where most of the modern poinsettias come from. The Ecke Ranch originally sold the poinsettia as a landscape plant and a cut flower. At that time, it could be found growing wild along the roadsides in California where it bloomed at Christmas. Ultimately it was offered as a potted plant, and the rest is history.
Originally, the plants were grown outdoors in fields where they came into bloom in time for Christmas. Now they are grown indoors in greenhouses where the day length can be manipulated to force them into bloom early.
Native to Mexico, poinsettias are sensitive to low temperatures. The Aztecs, who knew and used the plants, were unable to grow them at the higher elevation in Mexico City. Instead, these were grown in the lowland areas.
The Aztecs, who called the plant ‘cuetlaxochitle,’ used the red bracts as a dye source. They also applied the milky white sap to burns and used it to treat fevers. For the Aztecs, the plant was a symbol of purity.
Poinsettias were native to southern Mexico in a region called Taxo del Alarcon. In Mexico and other areas with warm climates, the plant takes the form of a bushy shrub that can reach ten feet in height. Just as with the Christmas cactus, the poinsettia begins to bloom once the days get shorter.
Their use as symbols of Christmas is believed to have arisen in the 1600’s when some Franciscan priests who were living in Mexico, saw the plants put on their attractive red coloring as the holiday season began. So they used them in their celebration of the nativity procession called the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre.
The plants reached the United States through the interest of the first American minister or ambassador to Mexico. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a plantation owner from South Carolina, held this position from 1825 to 1829. Appointed by President Andrew Jackson, he was a plant enthusiast. He traveled throughout Mexico in search of interesting plants. The plant must have been in bloom at just the right time for him to see it. Following his introduction to the poinsettia, he took some cuttings back to America and grew them in his greenhouse. Later, he passed some to friends. Some years ago, I happened to be in his hometown in South Carolina where a street is named after him.
Some time later, a Pennsylvania nurseryman became acquainted with the poinsettia. Colonel Robert Carr had become owner of the Bartram Nursery in Philadelphia, which was founded by John Bartram. He introduced the plant in 1829 at an exhibition, organized by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. Subsequently, the poinsettia was introduced to Europe by another American nurseryman, Robert Buist. This occurred in 1834.
The plant received the common name poinsettia after William Prescott decided it should be named after Poinsett for his role in bringing the plant to America. Prescott was a horticulturist and historian.
Poinsettia earned its botanical or Latin name the hard way, through its beauty. It was assigned the Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima by a German botanist. The species name means ‘very beautiful,’ which certainly fits the plant.
Now there is a National Poinsettia Day, which takes place on December 12th through an act of Congress. This was made possible by the efforts of the Ecke family. The day commemorates the death of Poinsett.
The bracts, which are the colorful part of the plant, are actually a kind
of modified leaf and not a flower at all. In fact, the true blossom is rather inconspicuous. Though it is clearly in view in the center of the bract, few of us take the time to actually look at the flower. We are bedazzled by the surrounding color.