View from the Garden: The History of Poinsettias

Poinsettias have arrived in the local garden centers signaling to us “bah humbugs” that we must face the approaching holidays, yield and proceed gracefully, or hide in a hole.

I ultimately yield, some years more gracefully than others. A poinsettia in the house is usually the first concession. I like the cream colored ones, although each year I am tempted by the blue or purple!

When I was a girl, the green house in our small Nebraska town was a sea of red in November and December. It was the supplier of cut and potted flowers to florists for miles around. There on the plains in the dry farm land it was an oasis of floral wonder to me. Christmas fashions and fads change regularly but poinsettias are always there, but we only had red when I was a girl. I loved these holidays then and poinsettias in November assured me that Christmas was coming!

Poinsettias, euphorbia pulcherrima, are members of the large and widespread euphorbia family, which includes rubber, castor oil and tapioca. The common name for euphorbia is spurge, a large and diverse family found worldwide. Many are used by gardeners. They are native to southern Mexico and Central America where they grow as straight 2-10-inch trees in low-altitude forests, blooming in mid-winter. The flowers are small greenish buds in the center of colored leaf bracts.

A much-edited version of their long history follows. It is traceable at least to the 14th century Aztecs who used the sap for medicinal purposes and the bracts as dye. Poinsettias were also symbols of purity. Franciscan priests in Taxco Mexico used them in the 17th century during the Fiesta Santa Pesebre. There is a Mexican legend of a child on his way to Christmas Eve Mass. He wanted to put flowers in the manger for the Christ Child but was too poor to buy flowers. An angel told him to pick weeds which turned into poinsettias as he approached the altar. Thereafter, poinsettias have been called Flor de Noche Buena… the Flower of Christmas Eve.

It is commonly held that poinsettias were introduced to North America in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, for whom the plant is named. He had been appointed ambassador to Mexico by President John Adams. He later became the founder of the Smithsonian Institution.  Poinsett, who was an amateur botanist, is said to have found the plant “growing in a ditch at the side of the road.” He sent them to his greenhouses in North Carolina, where he cultivated them and sent samples to fellow botanists and “nursery men,” principally Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. Bartram’s was owned by the granddaughter of John Bartram, “the first American botanist,” and is still in existence.

Bartram’s introduced them at the first exhibition of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (which became the Philadelphia Flower Show). Other nurseries began to grow them and their popularity spread quickly.

In 1900, poinsettias were sold from street carts as cut flowers in Encino, California by Albert Ecke. His son, Paul, developed grafting techniques creating densely branched plants from single trunked small trees. His secret techniques allowed a monopoly of poinsettia production for decades. Paul grew all of the mother plants, shipped these to nurseries that used cuttings from them to grow their plants. The secret was unraveled and made public in many years later, allowing the development of the abundant varieties today.

As I said, this is a much-distilled history of a plant that has become a holiday mainstay. It is part of the enormous history of modern horticulture worldwide, involving plant collectors, garden development, and plant knowledge and culture.

Whether you buy a red, pink, white, blue (these are fake), purple, gold (orange!) marbled, spotted, in tree form, clustered in a basket, miniature, having puckered leaves…poinsettia this year, good care at home will insure a beautiful plant. Before purchase, look for good green foliage on strong stems and bracts that are fully opened. Place it in indirect light in normal room temperature with no drafts. Do not over water.

Each year I bring the poinsettia home. It‘s exotic but familiar presence urges me into the holiday…I reluctantly follow, ultimately yielding, hopefully with grace.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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