Oh, What’s the Poinsettia?

December 12 is “National Poinsettia Day,” designated as such by an Act of Congress. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), died on that date in 1851. Poinsett was trained as a physician, but his first love was botany. While botanizing in the Taxco region of Mexico during the winter of 1828 he happened upon a large euphorbia with large red blooms and, entranced by the plant, shipped it back to his own greenhouses in South Carolina.

Joel Roberts Poinsett
Joel Roberts Poinsett

Poinsett did not discover the plant. Euphorbia pulcherrima (very beautiful euphorbia) had been named by German botantist Karl Willdenow (1765-1812) in the late 18th century. Scottish botanist Robert Graham (1786-1845) subsequently created a new genus Poinsettia for the plant. J.B. Klotzsch of the Royal Herbarium in Berlin examined Willdenow’s collection and affirmed the assignment to Euphorbia. Posterity has agreed with Klotzsch, but Graham’s genus became the most widely used vernacular name.

While serving in the U.S. Senate in the 1840s Poinsett was one of a group of gentleman scientists who promoted the idea of “National Institute for the Promotion of Science.” They used £100,000 sterling gift from James Smithson to start what is now the Smithsonian Institution. This does not quite counterbalance his diligence in “Indian removal” in campaigns against the Seminole and Cherokee as Secretary of War in the 1830s, so it perhaps best that he is most often remembered as the man who introduced poinsettia to the United States.

Although most people are familiar with poinsettias as a potted plant purchased before Christmas, in its natural environment it is actually a large shrub or a small tree, growing up to 10 feet tall. It is found from Mexico to Central America and the Andes. The Aztecs called it cuetlayochitl, “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure,” perhaps in reference to its tendency to drop its leaves when the air temperature fell below 55 degrees.

Actual flower; “cyathia”

The plant blooms between November and March in the subtropics. The showy red “flowers” are not petals but bracts; similar modified leaves also constitute the attractive part of the florescence of Cornus florida, the flowering dogwood. The actual flowers are waxy, swollen tubes lined with red at the distal end.

Poinsett gave away plants to other growers. Many sources claim that Poinsett sent plants to John Bartram, which is unlikely, as he died in 1777 (and his son John Bartram Jr. died in 1812), but his great-grandson John Bartram Carr presided over “Bartram’s Garden,” an arboretum on the Schuykill River near Philadelphia until his death in 1839. In any case, the plants were passed on to Robert Buist, who was apparently the first to sell them commercially.

They remained landscape shrubs until the 1920s, when Paul Ecke of southern California began selling them as cut flowers. It was Ecke who first marketed the plant as a Christmas ornament. In 1923 Ecke moved his operation from Hollywood to Encinitas and focused on poinsettias. He traveled the country teaching other growers how to raise them and encouraging them to market it as a holiday plant.

Landscape shrub in Canary Islands

In 1923 a Mrs. Enteman of Jersey City, New Jersey reportedly raised the first “Oak Leaf” cultivar from seed. This variety did well as a potted plant. Sports and cuttings of these plants sustained the industry until the 1950s, when the USDA in Beltsville, MD and other breeders across the country began developing plants with stiffer branches and longer lasting “blooms,” culminating with the “Paul Mikkelsen” in 1963. Production moved from open field growing to greenhouses.

In the 1960s Ecke Ranch used its location outside of Los Angeles to place poinsettias on the sets of the Tonight Show and Bob Hope Christmas specials, which further cemented the connection of the plant with the Christmas holiday. By 2000 over 65 million plants were being sold nationwide. Hundreds of cultivars are available in various colors, with textured leaves and in miniature form.


Odd Apples to Eat

Members of the Solanaceae family are found throughout the world. Their flowers are generally simple trumpets, but with a large range in size and color. Alkaloids are present in most of these species, which makes them varyingly delicious, allergenic, hallucinogenic, and toxic.

The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the family that has been viewed as nearly all of the above (not hallucinogenic) at one time or another. The center of diversity—and perhaps the point of origin—for the family is the Amazon basin of South America. Two of the more important foodstuffs of Europe, the tomato and the potato (Solanum tuberosum)— had to wait for the Age of Exploration to be brought back to the Old World and integrated into European cuisines. Similarly the eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena) originated in the Indian subcontinent, but is now firmly entrenched in many classic European dishes.

Golden apple?

The first description of the tomato in European literature was by botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544; he called it the pomo d’oro (“golden apple”), which has since become the name for countless Italian restaurants. As the name suggests, the earliest cultivated tomatoes were yellow. It is not known which European explorer brought them back from the New World, although archaeological evidence shows them to have been domesticated and in widespread use from their point of origin in the highlands of Peru to the heart of Aztec Mexico. The name “tomato” is derived from tomatl from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

Tomatoes were initially viewed with suspicion in much of Europe, in part because their resemblance to (because of their relation to) belladonna or “deadly nightshade” (Atropa belladonna), which is native to Europe and either toxic or hallucinogenic, depending on the dosage and your attitude. Early tomato fruits much more closely resembled the round berries of the belladonna. The Spanish referred to the New World import at pome dei Moro (Moor’s apple), apparently lumping it with all things exotic, and the French initially called it pomme d’amour (love apple), which is probably a misunderstanding of the Spanish, rather than anything to do with affection.

Tomato flowers

Tomatoes were grown as ornamentals in northern Europe for many years before anyone convinced the Europeans or Scandinavians to actually eat them. It was as ornamentals that they traveled to the British North American colonies, although, ever the man of the Continent, Thomas Jefferson is recorded to have been eating them in the 1780s. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were available in green, yellow, orange and red varieties, which may have been more of an attraction as an ornamental than their rather small yellow flowers.

Potato flowers are showier and come in a variety of colors, but they were not grown as ornamentals like tomatoes. They did, however, face the same sort of discrimination in northern Europe as their South American cousins. Introduced to Europe in 1536, the potato was brought all over the world by European traders, perhaps because its good long-term storage qualities made useful as a shipboard culinary item. In any case, it was known throughout south Asia by the end of the 17th century.

Potato flowers

The number of potato varieties if anything outstrips that of the tomato: 5000 worldwide, with 3000 of them in Andes, where it was an historic staple of the Inca diet. The Quechua word papa (potato) was combined with the Taino word batata (sweet potato) to created the Spanish word patata, which found general use in English. The French, who seem to view many round objects as a variety of apple, call them pomme d’terre, “apples of the earth”.

In German and Danish cooking, where potatoes are a staple, it is called kartoffel, which oddly enough, is derived from archaic Italian tartufoli for their odd resemblance to truffles (Italian tartufo), a subterranean fungus of the genus Tuber.

Potatoes are, of course, a nearly ubiquitous feature of Thanksgiving feasts. A few years ago when my wife and I decided to introduce the Thanksgiving meal to some open-minded Danes, we hauled the uniquely North American components—pumpkins (canned), cranberries (fresh) and pecans—along with us on the plane. Turkey is reasonably popular in much of Europe, so that wasn’t a problem, and we assumed that the universal presence of potatoes would make transporting them to Denmark unnecessary.

American spud

As it turns out, Danes don’t mash potatoes. Their supermarkets were full of finger potatoes, small narrow varieties with an enormous amount of starch in them. When we attempted to make the traditional  mashed potato dish with them, it turned into something that more nearly resembled North American potatoes mixed with wallpapering paste. Happily, the Danes didn’t know any better and were intrigued by any departure from simply cutting them up, boiling them and eating them.