Poinsettias are among the most popular potted flowering or foliage plants of the Christmas Season. They have been for decades. According to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics available, the wholesale value of U.S. grown poinsettias was roughly $140 million in 2015; $143.7 million in 2014. (By comparison, the 2015 wholesale value of orchids was about $288.3 million; chrysanthemums, $16.7 million; Easter lilies, $24.3 million.)
Long-recognized as the largest and most successful poinsettia breeder in the world, Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California was founded in 1924, by German immigrant entrepreneurs who moved to the US in 1902. For three generations, the Ecke family grew and sold poinsettias; first as field-grown landscape and mother plants and as cut flowers and, eventually, as greenhouse-grown stock plants. They moved their stock production facility to Guatemala during the 1990s and, in 2012, sold the business and the name. The leadership team stayed on.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima, literally the most beautiful Euphorbia) are native to Central America. In their natural environment, they’re flowering shrubs that often grow eight to ten feet tall. Originally red, newer varieties (more than 100 are grown, today.) are white, pink, yellow, orange, even multi-colored. Some have curled bracts (the beautifully colored leaves that are often mistaken for flowers). Others sport variegated leaves. All belong to the euphorbia family, a group of about 3,000 plants distinguished by their milky white sap.
It’s widely believed that poinsettias were prized by the ancient Aztecs who called them ‘cuetlaxochitle’ and viewed them as a symbol of purity. They became associated with the celebration of Christmas centuries later, it is said, following a Christmas Eve miracle.
Mexican legend has it that a young servant girl came to Christmas Eve mass with a bouquet of weeds that she’d gathered on her way to church. She entered the chapel and saw that many precious gifts had been placed before the altar; flawless jewelry crafted from the finest silver and gold, magnificent food, and luxurious clothing. She approached the altar to place her humble gift among the others, hoping only that it would be acceptable. And as she knelt down, her bouquet of wildflowers burst into brilliant red blooms.
Word of the miracle traveled quickly from village to village, and was passed down from generation to generation. The bright red flowers became known as Flores de Noche Buena; Flowers of the Holy Night. And today, poinsettias are commonly called Flores de Noche Buena throughout Central America. They bloom each year during the Christmas season and the bracts are said to represent the Star of Bethlehem. They’ve been used by Franciscan priests in nativity processions since the 17th century.
The poinsettia was given its name by historian and horticulturist William Prescott, in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as America’s first minister (or ambassador) to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Poinsett, who had a penchant for botany, is credited with bringing the American elm (and Freemasonry) to Mexico; and the poinsettia, along with certain varieties of red and yellow mimosas, the Mexican rose, and a hibiscus that can change from white to pink in a day, to this country. In recognition of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s many accomplishments, December 12, the date of his death in 1851, was declared National Poinsettia Day by an Act of Congress.
Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. Studies conducted in cooperation with the Society of American Florists at Ohio State University found no toxicity to humans or pets at ingestion levels far exceeding those likely to occur in homes. They are, however, not meant to be eaten, and some people may experience an allergic reaction to them. Therefore, it’s best to keep them beyond the reach of toddlers and away from inquisitive pets.
In 1992, poinsettias were added to a USDA list of houseplants most helpful in removing pollutants from indoor air after a two year study conducted by NASA scientists concluded that poinsettia plants remove formaldehyde pollution from indoor environments. Formaldehyde is found in building materials, carpeting, furniture, paper goods and even some clothing.
Holiday poinsettias do best in bright, indirect sunlight at comfortable temperatures (65°-75°F). They don’t fare well when subjected to cold drafts or dry heat and require watering when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch.
As they lose their bracts, poinsettias also lose their aesthetic appeal. Most folks simply add them to the compost pile, but with proper care (and a bit of luck), poinsettias can be saved and made to bloom again the following year.
Photos of Jingle Bell Poinsettias and Greenhouse grown poinsettias courtesy Dr. Gary R. Bachman; Mississippi State University Extension.