The poinsettia is such a part of American holidays that you might assume that we inherited it, like so many other Christmas traditions, from old European sources. In truth, their history is both older and newer than you might think, and of a distinctively American character.
The poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to southern Mexico and to Central America. In the wild it is not the compact densely flowered phenomenon that greenhouse growers provide; rather it is a fairly large and rangy shrub, often reaching 12 ft. in height. The Aztecs used the plant for dyes and assorted medicinal uses.
Associating the poinsettia with Christmas began sometime in the 1600’s. Franciscan monks brought the tradition of the Nativity Procession with them from Spain, and in a small region of southern Mexico they incorporated the local native plant in their celebrations. From this the story arose of a poor girl named Pepita, who was embarrassed and sad that she had no gift for baby Jesus at Christmas Eve service. As she walked to the chapel someone (her cousin, her brother, an angel – the story varies) reminded her that even the most meager gift, given in love, would make Him happy – so she gathered roadside weeds and flowers to make into a bouquet as she went. When she placed her gift upon the alter, it miraculously burst into bright red blooms to honor her humble faith.
This story and tradition remained very local for almost another 200 years. In 1803 or 1804 a Prussian scientist collected specimens and sent them back to Europe, where they were formally introduced as a new species in 1834; meanwhile Joel Roberts Poinsett, the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico, had begun collecting and sending specimens back to his greenhouse in South Carolina, possibly as early as 1826. He shared them with a variety of scientists and botanical gardens. By 1836, the name “poinsettia” was in use for the plant in America.
The popularity of the poinsettia grew slowly, first as a cut flower and then, in the early 1900’s, as brief seasonal landscape plants for the warmest parts of the country and potted indoor plants for the rest. The Ecke family, newly arrived in California, began growing and selling them, and developed growing techniques that produced a much more compact and attractive plant – so much improved that by 1923 they had a virtual monopoly on poinsettia culture.
In the 1960’s the third generation of the Ecke family promoted them heavily, giving free plants to television studios across the country to display for holiday programming. The poinsettias appeared on The Tonight Show, the Bob Hope Christmas specials, and elsewhere – and the poinsettia business boomed.
Today, more than 30 million poinsettias are sold every year, making them tops for flowering potted plants in both volume and value. Despite persistent myths to the contrary, poinsettias are not toxic and contact with or ingestion of small amounts will usually result in no symptoms at all; however, a very few people may have allergic reactions to the sap.
December 12th is National Poinsettia Day, to honor this holiday beauty and the man who first introduced it into wider culture.
Written by Darren Morgan