Poinsettia – A Lovely Plant

National Poinsettia Day is December 12. America’s favorite holiday flower* has its own special day of recognition! This day was jointly designated by Congress and the floral industry to celebrate the 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 and Christianity. The Nahuatl called it cuetlaxochitl (que-tlax-o-chi-tl), and used it as a symbol of purity. Poinsettia was brought off the hillsides and cultivated in the gardens of the ancient cities over one thousand years ago. The ease of cultivation and bright blooms* made it so popular that poinsettia was traded throughout Nauhatl lands.

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When the Aztecs came into central Mexico, they too fell in love with the vibrant contrasting colors of the poinsettias. These bright flowers were once the showpiece of the Aztec Royal Botanical Gardens.  Sadly the Conquistadors destroyed this massive botanical garden outside the Aztec capitol city of Tenōchtitlan.

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Pagan Plant into Flowers of the Holy Night

It is somewhat ironic that the Spanish colonial Catholic 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 lands. When Franciscan priests built a mission in Taxco, they were dazzled by the brilliant red flower.  A flower that bloomed in mid-winter, wild on the hillsides! Natives used these “pagan” flowers in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.  The alarmed priests quickly invented a story to explain the bright winter flowers. The story goes thus – 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.

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The “Discovery” of the Poinsettia

Poinsettia was discovered by North Americans after a wealthy Southern plantation owner was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829). Joel Poinsett sent some cuttings back to his plantation near Greenville, South Carolina where they were nurtured in his greenhouse and shared with his plant-loving friends. The common name remembers Poinsett, but the scientific name had already been designated Euphorbia pulcherrima. Poinsettia remains the common name throughout most of the world.

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Hard Work and A Beautiful Reward

The poinsettia may have remained a flower for wealthy dilettantes with greenhouses, were it not for the hard work of a German immigrant to the US.  In a real Horatio Alger style story, Albert Ecke and his family migrated to California.  There 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 blooms sold well. Then the family started raising fields of them. Ecke family greenhouses now cover 35 acres and distribute millions of ready-to-grow cuttings to poinsettia growers in over 50 countries.

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Plant Breeding at Work

The demand for poinsettias is extensive. In America alone over 15 million plants retailed last year. The demand is fueled by the breeding efforts of the Ecke family. The 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.

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* 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. (Comes from the same word that brackets ( ) comes from.) 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.”

Keeping your Poinsettia

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 much longer lasting) 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 six!

General poinsettia care in the Southwest – posted here.

Re-blooming poinsettia – coming next week.

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soule-southwest-gardenMore about growing colorful flowers (outdoors) every month of the year in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

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