Our traditional Christmas (or winter) decoration at this time of year is the lovely, large, red petals of the Poinsettia – well that along with holly, evergreens, Christmas cactus and snowflakes. The Poinsettia is native to Mexico where it grows as a road-side shrub to a height of 10’ to 15’. I was recently in Costa Rica where I saw it planted in the landscape of one of the hotels we visited – the plant does not appear to grow in the wild in Costa Rica, but it is a landscape species. It is also used as a landscape plant in Australia, Malta, and even Florida.
The red “petals” of the poinsettia are not petals at all but are bracts, or modified leaves. These bracts turn deep red when the temperatures cool in tropical Mexico and the day length is less than 12 hours. In Mexico they naturally turn red and are in bloom in December. The wild poinsettia has smaller bracts and more robust flowers (the yellow central part of the “flower”). It attracts many pollinators outdoors.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was appointed by President John Quincy Adams in the 1820’s as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. He was interested in botany so during his stay in Mexico he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828, he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, named the plant poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett’s discovery.
A nurseryman from Pennsylvania, John Bartram is credited as being the first person to sell poinsettias under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. But during the early 1900’s Albert Ecke began to cultivate the plant – grafting two species of poinsettias together to get larger bracts on a more compact plant. The Ecke family is the largest producer of poinsettia plants and today the Ecke Ranch grows over 50% of the poinsettia stock and sells them world-wide.
Here in New England our poinsettia plants make a lovely Christmas display. Plants can be kept alive year round indoors in pots but require special treatment to make them bloom each year. Enjoy your plant for the winter season and look forward to purchasing a new plant next year – each year new colors of poinsettias are being introduced for variety in this living decoration.
December 12th was Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.