National Poinsettia Day is December 12. How sweet — America’s favorite holiday flower has its own special day of recognition! Congress and the floral industry joined to designate this day to celebrate the timely beauty and rich history of the poinsettia. And an interesting history it is too.
Native to the New World
Poinsettia is native to the area of Mexico near present day Taxco. These charming plants were popular long before Christmas came to the region. In Nahuatl, it was called cuetlaxochitl (que-tlax-o-chi-tl), and used as a symbol of purity. More than a thousand years ago, poinsettia plants were brought off the hillsides and cultivated in the gardens of the ancient cities. They were relatively easy to grow and had large lovely “blooms”* so they quickly became popular throughout Nahuatl/Aztec lands. (They also made a lovely dye.)
When the Aztecs came into central Mexico, they too fell in love with the vibrant contrasting colors of the poinsettias. Before the Conquistadors destroyed the extensive Royal Botanical Gardens outside the Aztec capital city of Tenōchtitlan, the poinsettias in bloom were one of the more popular showpieces of the gardens.
Pagan Plant into Flowers of the Holy Night
It is somewhat ironic that the Spanish colonial Christian priests at first frowned on the use of the “pagan” poinsettia. Since it was a fussy plant to grow, they mainly succeeded in eradicating poinsettia cultivation in Nahuatl/Aztec lands. When Franciscan priests built a mission near Taxco, they were dazzled by the brilliant red poinsettias. This was especially true since they bloomed wild on the hillsides in mid-winter! Natives used the flowers in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. Rather than fight the Natives over their beloved flower, the canny priests made up a story: a little girl had nothing but a weed bouquet to offer at the church altar, but as she laid her humble gift down, it was changed into the brilliant Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.
The “Discovery” of Poinsettia
A wealthy Southern plantation owner was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), and “discovered” the poinsettia. Joel Poinsett was his name and he sent some cuttings back to his plantation near Greenville, South Carolina. His family nurtured the poinsettias in the greenhouse, and shared them with their plant-loving friends who also had greenhouses. The scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima but poinsettia remains the common name throughout most of the world, due to the family sharing this pretty plant.
Hard Work and A Beautiful Reward
The poinsettia might have remained a plant for wealthy dilettantes with greenhouses, were it not for the hard work of a German immigrant, Albert Ecke, and his family. In a real Horatio Alger-style story, the family migrated to California where they grew vegetables and sold them from push carts along Sunset Boulevard, working hard to make ends meet. Meanwhile, poinsettias had long since escaped from the Spanish missions in California and were growing wild, as weeds, on California hillsides. One Ecke son added a few of the colorful “weeds” as fresh cut flowers to his vegetable offerings. The scarlet cuttings sold so well the family started raising fields of them. Ecke family greenhouses cover 35 acres and distribute millions of ready-to-grow cuttings to poinsettia growers in more than 50 countries.
Plant Breeding at Work
The demand for poinsettias is extensive. In America alone, more than 15 million plants retailed last year. The demand is fueled by the breeding efforts of the Ecke family. The once scarlet bracts have now been bred into a plethora of color choices, ranging from white, to pink, to dappled red and white, to “snow” sprinkled red, et cetera. It is amazing what careful selection can bring about in a few short years. The PGA (Poinsettia Growers Association) is one of the horticulture industry’s most focused and dynamic professional organizations.
When a “Flower” is Not A Flower
* Official disclaimer: The poinsettia “flower” isn’t really a flower. The tiny green and yellow flowers are surrounded by colored leaves technically called bracts. These bracts are what many think of as the “flowers.” For readers’ ease, I have referred to the whole combination of bracts and flowers as “flowers.”
Whether bracts or flowers, the whole plant is a charming addition to home or office during the holiday season. You could save your poinsettia plants and get them to rebloom next year – with a great deal of fussing and care. But new plants cost about the same as a bouquet of flowers (but last much longer) so just let the old ones go to the great compost heap in the sky, and get new ones next year. Celebrate National Poinsettia Day, December 12, with a bright and cheerful poinsettia or two.
As well as being a long-time Southwestern gardener, Dr. Jacqueline Soule is a Botanist and Ethnobotanist, studying human use of plants. If you like the topic, you might like her book, Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). It was listed as a top pick for 2012 by the Arizona Library Association, and features an extensive bibliography of the history of plant use in the Southwest. (The link is to Amazon, and if you buy the book there, we get a few pennies.)
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