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.

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