Perhaps no other plant brightens the Holiday Season more than the Poinsettia. This beloved plant even celebrates its very own holiday. December 12th. National Poinsettia Day was named to honor the passing of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851 who was credited with bringing it to the United States. Poinsett was a botanist, physician, and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. During one of his trips to the country, he became enchanted with a shrub that grew wild along the roadsides and sent cuttings home to Charleston, South Carolina where he began cultivating plants in his greenhouse and giving them as gifts.
In the early 1900’s, Paule Ecke Jr. began growing poinsettias as a landscape plant. He eventually discovered a technique which caused the seedlings to branch, creating a fuller plant and helped to launch the Poinsettia industry. For more than 100 years, The Paul Ecke Ranch in California has hybridized and patented a variety of color options, with ‘Presige Red’ remaining the traditional favorite. The Paul Ecke Ranch produces more than 70% of commercial Poinsettias and they have become the best-selling potted plant in the United States, with an estimated 250 million dollars in retail sales.
Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbiacae, or Spurge family. Botanically, the plant is named Euphorbia pulcherrima. The colorful bracts, or modified leaves which are often mistaken for flowers have been traditionally used as fabric dyes and the sap was used in fever-reducing medicines in South American cultures. In our modern myths, they are said to be poisonous. While the leaves and sap can cause nausea in large doses (500 leaves per 50 pounds of body weight), it is not considered to be toxic.
The colors of the bracts “bloom” through photoperiodism which is a response to darkness and controlled by the phytochorme pigment in the leaves. This is also the process responsible for seed germination, stem elongation and dormancy responses. The Poinsettia is a short-day plant and to set bloom requires at least 5 consecutive days of 12-hour nights.
The true flowers, or cyathia, of the Poinsettia are found at the center of the colorful bracts. The plant will drop its bracts and leaves soon after these flowers shed their pollen so for the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
History and science aside, the Poinsettia heralds the coming of winter holidays throughout the world. In Mexico, the Poinsettia is displayed during Dia-de-la-Virgen celebrations and is known as the Flower of the Holy Night. Wherever you might find yourself this Holiday Season, enjoy this beautiful and historic plant of celebration. And Happy Gardening!