The little yellow buds in the center of the poinsettia are the flowers.
Today, December 12, is National Poinsettia Day; a day set aside to honor the plant that has become a symbol of the American holiday tradition. And while not everyone’s a fan, it’s hard not to marvel at the species’ growing popularity. Poinsettias have come a long way since they were first introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In his day, they were remarkable for their brilliant red color. These days, they come in every shade of white, pink and orange and even blue.
While they’re now commonplace in the United States, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually native to Mexico where they grow wild in the tropical forests of the Pacific Coast. In their natural habitat, poinsettias are sprawling and vine-like, often taking the form of shrubs or small trees.
Wild poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima
Due to their brilliant red color, poinsettias have been a part of Christmas in Mexico since the mid 1600’s. But they were virtually unheard of in the United States until the early 1800’s. This is when Poinsett, who was the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist, happened upon some while stationed in the country.
Poinsett was so fascinated by the unusual-looking species that he began sending cuttings back to his family in South Carolina. When he later returned to his native State, Poinsett started propagating his own plants. He then introduced them to botanical gardens and nurseries throughout America.
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Orange Spice’
As it grew in popularity due mainly to efforts by Poinsett, the poinsettia became known in the United States as the ‘Mexican Fire Plant.’ The plant’s scarlet, star-shaped leaves and winter-blooming properties made it a colorful addition to holiday households. Following Poinsett’s death, the plant was renamed Poinsettia in honor of its discoverer.
The Ecke Family
The poinsettia industry really took off in the early 1900’s when a German immigrant named Albert Ecke started selling plants from a street stand on Sunset Boulevard in California. Given that the poinsettia was one of only a handful of plants known to bloom in the winter, Ecke soon convinced area growers of the advantages of propagating the plant to raise cash during the off-season.
When Albert’s son, Paul Ecke Jr. took over the business in the 1960’s, he began an intense marketing campaign, sending fresh plants to TV stations at Christmas and making personal appearances to promote the plant’s many benefits. His efforts landed the poinsettia in many popular women’s magazines and vastly increased the poinsettia’s overall visibility.
During the same period, Ecke Sr. came up with a technique that greatly improved the appearance of the often spindly-looking plant. By grafting two varieties of poinsettias together, he was able to create a fuller, more compact plant with many more blooms; a precursor to the specimens we purchase today. Until the technique was finally revealed, the Eckes maintained a 90 percent share of the American poinsettia market.
The leaf is the flower
Poinsettias’ bright red leaves are often mistaken for flowers when in fact they are bracts. The plant’s actual flowers are the tiny cluster of yellow orbs in the poinsettia’s center. In order to produce the colored bracts, poinsettias require a daily regimen of at least 12 hours of darkness followed by bright sun (a long process undertaken by the grower.)
Although the plant originated as a red-leaved species, you can now find poinsettias in every shade of salmon, pink, creamy yellow and white. Modern hybrids, created by a cross between the traditional Euphorbia pulcherrima and Euphorbia cornastra, include varieties with reduced central flowers. Still other varieties are marbled or striped.
(All photos taken at the United States Botanic Garden holiday exhibition.)
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Autumn Leaves 2016’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bells’
Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Hot Pink’
Euphorbia hybrid ‘Princettia Max White’
Euphorbia hybrid ‘Luv U Pink’
Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jingle Bell Rock’
How to pick a poinsettia
When shopping for a poinsettia, make sure to look for a plant that has dark green foliage all the way down to the soil line. Choose plants that have fully-colored bracts and no green around the bract edges. Green edges are a sign that the plant is older and won’t last as long. Never buy plants with yellowed leaves, which are sure signs of plant stress.
Although bred to be compact, poinsettia branches break easily. Check to make sure no cracked branches are being held up by the foil sleeve. And always remove the sleeve after purchasing. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to survive.
Water well and allow the plant to dry out before re-watering. Avoid fertilizer, which will hasten the decline of the colored bracts. Expose the poinsettia to plenty of sunlight to keep its bright color.
Although the sap and latex of the poinsettia leaves can cause a mild allergic reaction in some sensitive individuals, the plants themselves are not poisonous. As for the commonly-held belief that the plants are toxic to pets, the Pet Poison Helpline confirms that while poinsettias are listed as toxic to dogs and cats, they are only mildly irritating to the mouth and stomach if swallowed.
Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized since it is named after a person. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is pronounced poin-set-ee-ah.