University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Holiday News Article

WHY DO WE HAVE POINSETTIAS?

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont


With poinsettias the most popular flowering holiday plant in much of the world, most may not stop to think just how they got to be so popular.  Their history begins in Mexico, in the early 1800's.

Poinsettias actually were around for much longer, having been cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico before Christianity came to the Western Hemisphere.  The plant was native to an area called Taxo del Alarcon in southern Mexico.  Growing year round as a woody shrub, to ten feet high, it bloomed during the shorter days of winter.  Research in the middle of the twentieth century showed the poinsettia requires a specific number of hours of darkness each night in order to bloom. 

Because of its brilliant color, the flower was considered a symbol of purity by the native Mexicans.  It was highly prized by Kings Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, even though they could not grow it in the cooler climate of their capital (present-day Mexico City).

The Aztecs used the plant they called "cuetlaxochiti" not only for decoration, but for practical uses.  They made a purplish dye from its bracts (the colored parts we think of as the flowers), and used its milky sap or latex to treat fevers.

Perhaps the first use of the poinsettia for holidays, due to its time of bloom and beautiful color,  predated its "discovery."  During the 17th century, Franciscan priests near Taxco used the flower in a nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre.

The first of three people responsible for the poinsettia's popularity was Joel Roberts Poinsett, Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829.  As a sidenote, it is he who later founded what we know today as the Smithsonian Institution.  Mr. Poinsett was also a keen botanist, and sent some of these plants in 1828 to his own greenhouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantation.  From there he propagated the plants, sending them to friends and relatives.

One of these that received some of the first poinsettias was the second person responsible for promoting the poinsettia.  Colonel Robert Carr, then owner of the famous Bartram Nursery of Philadelphia, introduced the poinsettia into cultivation and trade in 1829 at an exhibition of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.  In 1834, another famous nurseryman in American history, Robert Buist, introduced the poinsettia to Europe.

This plant is a member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, and was first marketed as Euphorbia poinsettia.  A German taxonomist correctly named it Euphorbia pulcherrima (most beautiful) in 1833, the correct scientific name to this day.  The common name we use today was believed to have been coined around 1836.

The poinsettia was shipped around the country during the 1800's, more as an outdoor plant for warm climates.  Around 1920 in southern California, a horticulturist named Paul Ecke became the third key person to promote the poinsettia.  He felt this shrub growing wild along roadsides would make a perfect Christmas flower, so set about producing these in fields in what is now Hollywood.  A few years later, due to development, he was forced to move south to Encinitas where the Paul Ecke Ranch continues to produce poinsettias today.

Through the marketing efforts of Paul Ecke and his sons, the poinsettia has become symbolic with Christmas.  An Act of Congress has even set December 12, the death of Joel Poinsett, as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate this man and this plant.   Originally only red in color, through the breeding efforts of the Eckes and others, the poinsettia you find today may be in all shades of red to almost purple, pinks, bicolors, and even white.


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