The Story of the Poinsettia

The Story of the Poinsettia
Poinsettias are part of the holiday tradition. But this wasn’t always true. How did this beautiful plant come to be so important?

Poinsettias are native to Mexico. There it is warm, and they bloom during the winter months. Some say it became a part of the holiday tradition after the Spanish arrived in Mexico. According to the legend, a poor Mexican girl had nothing to bring as a gift for the Christ Child in honor of the Christmas mass. So she picked a bouquet of common weeds growing along the roadside. As she entered the church and placed them at the feet of the Christ Child, they burst into bloom. Since then, they have been associated with Christmas in Mexico.

Somewhat later poinsettias were introduced to the U.S. by Joel Roberts Poinsett, he was America’s first ambassador to Mexico, and served from 1825-1829. Originally from South Carolina, he was a botanist and Southern plantation owner.

While he was visiting in Taxo, Mexico he saw the plants blooming in December. He brought back some plants with him when he returned to the U.S. to Greenville, South Carolina. The plants did well in his greenhouse there, and he gave away some plants and seeds to friends. Some went to a commercial nursery in Philadelphia. The plant is named for Poinsett.

Apparently he also sent them to Colonel Robert Carr, the husband of John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr. Carr displayed the plants at the inaugural show that would later become the Philadelphia Flower Show, now in its 175th year. This event was organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He displayed a plant there, and described it as “a new Euphorbia with bright scarlet bracteas or floral leaves, presented to the Bartram Collection by Mr. Poinsett, United States Minister of Mexico.”

Poinsett may have played a key role in introducing the plant to America, but the Paul Ecke Ranch in California is largely responsible for its popularity. This family’s association with the plant begins in 1902. In that year Albert Ecke and his family arrived as immigrants in Southern California from Germany. There they grew various crops, such as fruit trees, vegetables, and outdoor flowers. They found these bright red flowers growing wild on the hillsides in California, and began raising them as fresh cut flowers for Christmas.

After Albert’s death in 1920, his son, Paul Ecke Sr. assumed management of the company. It is now known as the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch or the Paul Ecke Ranch. Ecke would walk through the fields looking for plants with interesting characteristics. He used those for breeding purposes. He sold fresh bunches of the cut flowers from his fields along Sunset Boulevard. In 1923 the ranch relocated to Encinitas, California.

The plant came to be a traditional symbol of Christmas due to the efforts of Paul Ecke Sr. For over seventy years he worked breeding, growing, and distributing the plants to nurseries.

Over 75% of the poinsettias grown in America, and 50% of those in the entire world come from the Paul Ecke Ranch.

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