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Park District Poinsettia Explosion

The Decatur Park District’s recent Holiday Plant Sale featured hundreds of poinsettias. The story of the poinsettia from a wild flower growing along the road in Mexico to an iconic image of Christmas is an interesting one. 

Poinsettias are everywhere this time of year. Of all the flowers out there, why is the poinsettia associated with Christmas?

The truth is if it weren't for an observant U.S. ambassador, the poinsettia, or Euphorbia pulcherrima would have remained a plant of Mexican and Central American medicine and legend rather than the common Christmas decoration it is today.

Traditionally, the Aztecs called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitle." They used the sap from the plant to control fevers, and the bright red bracts were a source of red dye. The plant grew wildly and flowered naturally in the short winter days in tropical highlands.

A Mexican legend tells of a poor girl named Pepita who had nothing to offer the Christ child at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin Pedro told her that "even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes."

Pepita gathered a small bouquet of roadside weeds to take to church, and as she placed them at the nativity scene, they burst into brilliant red blooms. These blooms of Euphorbia pulcherrima were referred to as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night since they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

The name poinsettia is credited to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He was a physician by training but had a passion for botany. In 1828 he spied Euphorbia pulcherrima growing along the roadside and took some cuttings to his greenhouse in South Carolina and shared the plants with family and friends.

John Bartram of Pennsylvania was the first to offer Euphorbia pulcherrima commercially. Later historian William Prescott coined the name "poinsettia" in his book “Conquest of Mexico” in honor of Joel Poinsett. Though Joel led a successful career as a congressman and ambassador, and also founded the Smithsonian Institution, he is most known for the poinsettia. Congress declared Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day in his honor.

The poinsettia’s introduction to the U.S. in the 1800s as a novel new plant was nothing like its popularity today. How in the world did a wild plant from Mexico become a fixture in many American homes during the holidays?

Much of the poinsettia’s popularity is credited to Paul Ecke Sr. of California. Observing that the poinsettia naturally flowered around Christmas in California, he envisioned the poinsettia becoming "the" Christmas flower. But how could he accomplish this at a time when most people had never seen a poinsettia and had no reason to associate it with Christmas?

At the time, Ecke’s ranch was in the Los Angeles area of California. He began to make poinsettia a household name by marketing poinsettias as cut flowers from roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area, near the fields from where the flowers were harvested. Poinsettias were also sold as good landscape plants for southern California homeowners since their climate is very similar to Mexico's climate.

As the Los Angeles area population boomed, and poinsettias grew in popularity, Ecke had to find more land for his ranch. In 1923, he bought land in Encinitas, California, where his ranch stands today. Through the mid-1960s, his ranch provided mother plants for greenhouses across the U.S.

The poinsettias that were grown up to this point were very different than those we see today. They lost their leaves and bracts very soon after Christmas, tended to be very tall and leggy, and did not grow very well as potted plants.

Plant breeding and the next Ecke generation was poised to change that.

Paul Ecke Jr. promoted the idea of producing greenhouse grown cuttings rather than field grown mother plants for sale to greenhouses. This cut down on shipping costs and led to the development of varieties well-suited to being greenhouse grown in pots. Paul Jr. also launched an aggressive marketing plan, promoting poinsettias in print and on television, even placing poinsettias on “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope Christmas Specials. His efforts paid off, as most people today associate the poinsettia with Christmas. This has been a great success for Paul Jr., as statistics say over 90 percent of the world's poinsettia plants started life in California at the Ecke Ranch.

A few tips for poinsettia care in the home:

  • Purchase poinsettias at your last stop when holiday shopping. Plants will likely be damaged by the cold if left to wait in the car while you shop.

  • Remove all protective wrappings as soon as you get home. Plants will deteriorate rapidly if they are not uncovered.

  • Place poinsettias out of cold or warm drafts, which can cause flower or leaf drop. A draft of a few seconds is enough to cause leaf drop minutes later.

  • Most plants are happy in typical room temperatures (68-72 degrees) but will hold their blooms longer at cooler indoor temperatures (as low as 55 degrees)

  • Give plants bright indirect light without allowing plants to contact cold windows.

  • Water plants when their soil is dry. Do not allow them to sit in water, as this promotes root rot. Overly wet soil also promotes fungus gnats.

  • Don’t let poinsettias dry to the point of wilting. Repeated cycles of wilting will shorten the life any blooms present, and ultimately the plant may be damaged.

  • Remove plastic or foil sleeves which hold water, or punch holes to allow water to flow into a saucer placed beneath the plant. It is far too easy to overwater otherwise.

  • Do not fertilize poinsettias while they are in bloom. If you choose to keep your plants after they are finished blooming, fertilizing is best done in the spring at the start of the new growing season. Some find poinsettias make good additions to the annual flower bed in the spring, as a vigorous green shrub-like backdrop.

After the holidays are over, poinsettias make a nice houseplant.

As bracts fade and leaves drop, cut stems back to 4 to 6 inches tall. Fertilize lightly, place in the bright indirect light and allow green leaves to regrow. Place outside in spring as a green accent in the annual garden. Reflowering poinsettias is possible, but fairly difficult to do in the home. They must have at least twelve hours of darkness each day from September to December without interruption in order to be successful. 

Jennifer Schultz Nelson shares practical ideas and information to bring out the gardener in everyone in her blog at www.groundedandgrowing.co.

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