Plant stories: Poinsettia

Chances are – if you live in the northern hemisphere – you’ll be given, or have been given, a poinsettia for Christmas. They are the go-to pot plant for anyone buying a gift at this time of year and have a long and proud history in the United States where they’ve been popular for almost 190 years. A Christmas story for Christmas week!

Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), the first US ambassador to Mexico, sent some of these plants with their winter-red bracts to the greenhouses at his home in South Carolina in the 1820s – an amateur botanist, he was later a founding member of what is now called the Smithsonian Institute. His gardeners propagated the plants and gave them to Poinsett’s friends and botanical gardens. The plants were introduced at the debut Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829 and were an immediate hit.

The plant was given the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima in 1833 but about four years later was renamed Poinsettia pulcherrima – the Aztecs, however, knew it as cuetlaxochitl and extracted a purple-red dye for textiles and cosmetics from the plant’s bracts, while the milky white sap (latex) was used to treat fevers. It was highly prized by both King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, but because of the high-altitude climate of their capital (now Mexico City), the plant had to be brought in especially.

During the 17th century, Franciscan priests settled near Taxco, in southern Mexico, generally considered the home of the poinsettia in Mexico. They began to use the plant in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. Juan Balme, a Spanish botanist of the same period, mentioned the poinsettia, which has insignificant flowers, in his writings.

Modern Mexicans call it Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night, and have a sweet story that brings together poinsettias and Christmas.

There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present for the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita’, he said ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus happy.’

So Pepita picked some weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she had only this small gift for Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the base of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them was sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena.

The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes considered a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. The red leaves symbolise the blood of Christ, or the white-leafed variety his purity.

According to The American Phytopathological Society website, the modern era of poinsettia culture in the US began with the introduction of the seedling cultivar Oak Leaf, reportedly grown originally in Jersey City (New Jersey) by a Mrs Enteman in 1923. From 1923 until the early 1960s, all the principal cultivars of commercial importance were selections or sports from this original seedling.

A Christmas display in Wanganui’s Winter Gardens – the poinsettias ‘forced’ to colour in summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Potted plants are sprayed to dwarf them. In their natural state poinsettias are tall, woody shrubs – my great-uncle had one in a garden in the lee of his home in Tauranga that was reaching up to the second-storey eaves (they become lankier in shade).

However, the name most associated with the commercialisation and high-profile of poinsettias in the US is Paul Ecke (three generations of the same family with the same name).

German immigrant Paul Ecke and his parents began growing and selling poinsettias as landscape plants and cut flowers in Hollywood, before being pushed out by the new-fangled movie industry and shifting in 1923 to Encinitas, southern California. Over the years they moved from landscaping plants into potted plants and in the 1960s, Paul developed a grafting technique that produced an unusually high number of blooms per stem, a more compact plant and one that was tough enough to withstand shipping. However, in 1991 a researcher stumbled on the technique and published it in an industry journal – meaning the family’s market share of poinsettia sales in the US dropped from about 90% to 70% (and eventually, indirectly, leading to the demise of the business, see below).

Paul Ecke Jr came up with clever ways of marketing the plants until, in 1998, poinsettias became the top-selling potted plant in the US, nudging aside the chrysanthemum. The family, by the way, was never a retailer of plants but sold to others to grow on. Paul Jr brought cultivation into greenhouses and as his swansong in the business in 1992 introduced Eckespoint Freedom – of the more than 100 poinsettia cultivars grown commercially today, Eckespoint Freedom represents more than 50% of the red market worldwide and 70-75% of the red poinsettia market.

The Ecke Ranch in Encinitas was the world’s largest grower of poinsettias, at one time having an international market share of more than 50%. Paul III, who took over in 1992 and started a growing operation in Guatemala to try and stay competitive on price, sold the business in 2012 to the Dutch company Agribio which, the following year, merged with German company Dümmen, the latter taking over the poinsettia business. See the 2017 Dümmen digital catalogue of Ecke poinsettias.

A poinsettia Christmas ‘tree’ in San Diego, California. Photo: Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia

According to this 2011 story about the three generations of the Eckes, between 70 and 80 million poinsettias are on display in American homes and stores during the festive season! (I saw one this week beside the fireplace of Marge and Homer Simpson.)

Garden writer George Wiegel details some of the difficulties in getting poinsettias to produce their Christmas colouring at the right time – or even again. (If you click on the link to read the full story I’m not sure why Paul Ecke senior is called ‘Albert’.)

“Pigments in the bracts react to seasonal light changes, taking their cue when nights start becoming longer than days.

“This is what drives poinsettia growers crazy because the plants are very picky about that light, especially when they’re being coerced to colour in time to meet store orders. Ideally, they want 14 hours of interrupted darkness each night for 8 to 10 weeks.

“Mess up and they won’t fully colour. Quality Greenhouses near Dillsburg verified that years ago when a crop of finicky poinsettias was traced to stray light entering the greenhouse from nearby dock lights.

“This is also the reason why home gardeners have trouble getting their summered-over poinsettia to turn red again the following year. Forget to turn off a light at night, and you’re stuck with a greenish poinsettia.”

Poinsettias have been developed over the years to now include, as well as red and white, pink bracts, salmon, purple and multi-coloured. Photo: Yinan Chen, via Wikimedia

Poinsettia Day is marked in the US on December 12, the date of Dr Poinsett’s death and, coincidentally, the Day of the Virgin in Mexico when the plants are traditionally displayed.

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