Long before Christmas came to the Western continents and adopted the poinsettia, Cuetlaxochitl, the plant that turned red in November and December, was cherished as a symbol of purity by the Aztecs including the last emperor, Montezuma, (1466-1520). They also had practical applications for the plant. From the pointed bracts they extracted a reddish purple dye used as a cosmetic, and the milky white latex sap went into a medicinal preparation to counteract fever.
A ten-foot tall, stiff-canned shrub, the evergreen poinsettia is a Central American native that flourishes in the arid tropical highlands surrounding Taxco de Alarcon, a town in Southern Mexico. In the seventeenth century, a settlement of Franciscan priests near Taxco incorporated the poinsettia’s bright red into a nativity procession. Two centuries later the poinsettia was introduced to the United States, and it was a hundred years more before it become established as the world’s best-known Christmas flower, and Big $ Business.
It was Joel Roberts Poinsett, a cosmopolitan American statesman, who set the poinsettia on the road to stardom. In 1825, President Madison appointed Poinsett to be the first United States Minister (Ambassador) to turbulent Mexico. Something of a Renaissance man, Poinsett was known for the fierce courage with which he had handled challenges to the young US government.
In Mexico City Poinsett lived up to his reputation, facing down revolutionary mobs threatening people under the protection of the American embassy. The son of a French physician/apothecary, and a former medical student, Poinsett was also an able botanist. While his heroic missions to Latin America have been consigned to the dust of history — as has his role as a founder of the precursor to the famous Smithsonian Institution — his interest in the plant that turned red at Christmas is likely to immortalize his name.
In 1828, Poinsett sent poinsettia plants back to his home in Charleston, SC. The first known US-grown poinsettias were propagated quite casually in Poinsett’s greenhouses and distributed to family friends and botanical gardens. Among the friends was John Bartram of Philadelphia. Bartram passed the gift plant on to Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman, and it was Buist who first sold the poinsettia under the botanical name it now bears, Euphorbia pulcherrima¯ — which means the most beautiful Euphorbia. It also has many colorful common names: Flower of the Holy Night; Christmas Star; Christmas Flower; Painted Lady; Lobster Plant; Mexican Flameleaf.
What all euphorbias have in common is a milky sap which can be a skin irritant — but there’s nothing poisonous abuot the planbt — and this flowerhead composed of small button-shaped blooms and colorful bracts. The poinsettia’s brilliant red “petals” are bracts, not petals. Bracts are petal-like modified leaves that change color. The cluster of tiny round yellow blossoms that center the poinsettia’s red bracts are its true flowers.
The poinsettia’s passage from Aztec symbol to world-famous potted plant has been eventful, and its contributions, like Poinsett’s, more significant than is generally known. The gawky stems of the original species have stringy red bracts which tend to drop after flowering, along with the leaves, and the flowers rarely form seeds. Many years of research and investment dollars separate the original plant from today’s long-lasting, compact, multi-branched, oak-leaved hybrids that come in assorted decorator colors, from white and pink to yellow and all manner of variations on the original red.
Growing the poinsettia now is a world-wide, billion-dollar enterprise providing thousands of jobs, but the name most often associated with modern hybrids is that of a German immigrant to the US, Paul Ecke. In 1906 the first Paul Ecke moved from the farm he had established in Eagle Rock Valley, California, (now Los Angeles), to Hollywood. There he raised gladioli, chrysanthemums and poinsettias for the cut-flower trade.
Though not much use as a landscape plant in temperate regions, the poinsettia soars in southern California gardens. For Ecke, the harvest was bountiful, but the narrow bracts tended to color too soon and many of the plants lost their foliage at shipping time, or soon after. Then a “sport” that held its foliage better than the species volunteered in a neighbor’s yard, and Ecke’s son Albert acquired it. A sport is a plant that on its own presents a genetic change that is reproducible. This sport also had much wider bracts which gave the plants better color. Named ‘Early Red’, it became the favorite cutting poinsettia. In 1920 another sport appeared, a show-stopper with even wider, more compact red bracts. Named ‘Hollywood’, it became the potted plant sold during the holidays.
But early in ‘Hollywood’s’ reign a plant with a characteristic that would be included in the makeup of all modern poinsettias sported in the Jersey City garden of a Mrs. Enteman. Named ‘Oak Leaf’, its broad, twice-scalloped foliage was more attractive than earlier poinsettias. Better yet — the leaves and bracts stayed on the plant through the crucial shipping period, the week before Christmas. From 1923 to the early 1960s all commercial sales in the US came from poinsettias developed from ‘Oak Leaf’. Many of the varieties, perhaps most, were selected and multiplied by Paul Ecke. Along the way came a sport that was an early blooming white, the first of the modern colors.
THE NEW BREEDS
Before 1960, very few poinsettias were grown in Europe, and those were used primarily as fresh-cut flowers for Christmas. The first truly long lasting poinsettia was introduced in 1963 by Ohio nurseryman Jim Mickelson who named the plant for his father, ‘Paul Mickelson’. The following year from Norway came ‘Annette Hegg’, a plant which combined an extraordinary capacity for branching and lasting keeping qualities. Easy to grow, the Hegg cultivars have the ability to develop five to eight bracts from a single pinched-out stem, with up to fifteen branches per plant.
No one understands just why, but just an inch or two of a Hegg stem grafted onto an ordinary poinsettia induces self-branching in the entire plant and it will always be like that, it won’t revert. More branching means more stem-ends, more bracts, and therefore more color. The Hegg miracle spread throughout Europe, the US, and Canada. In 1969, the red ‘Annette Hegg’ sported to white, then marble, then dark red, then orange-red, all still within the Christmas color scheme. In 1972, ‘Annette Hegg’ in hot pink appeared, and in 1984, a whiter white came from Denmark. These decorator colors were desirable before and after the holiday season, inching the poinsettia towards a niche in the realm of decorator plants. Throughout these years, the Ecke nurseries in California continued to introduce new poinsettia forms. In 1992 the Echespoint (T) strain came onto the market with ‘Freedom’. A compact plant that flowers early and has bright ruby red bracts and dark green foliage, ‘Freedom’ travels well. It has set the standard for today’s industry. Dazzling new colors appeared — the golden yellow Eckespoint ‘Lemon Drop’, and a bronzed ‘Pink Peppermint’. The 1993 star poinsettia, ‘Monet’, splashes every bract with the warm pink-orange-yellow colors of the garden at Giverny that inspired some of the French artist’s most beautiful paintings.
In 1992 the poinsettia was included on the list of houseplants most succesful in removing pollutants from indoor air — another boost to its emerging role as a year-round indoor plant. Flower of the future
The extraordinary 1993 poinsettia is a shining example of the riches, spiritual and financial, that can be created through the study and modification of plant properties. The basic research on the inter-relations of light, temperature, and chemicals in plant growth that has made the poinsettia a year-round industry, has made other plants available year-round as well, notably mums. The growth controls found effective with the poinsettia are successfully applied to agriculture, and have given many areas a substantial boost. The poinsettia’s extreme sensitivity to air pollution has given science an environmental “canary”, a valued tool for investigating the effects of pollution, drought, atmospheric changes, and ultra violet radiation. One set of pigments within the surface of the poinsettia leaf act as optical screens shielding internal tissues from damage by UV radiation. Sometime in the future — who knows? — the most beautiful euphoria may lead to total sunscreen protection for humans. In its passage from super-sensitive primitive to Flower of the Holy Night, the plant cherished by the Aztecs as a symbol of purity hints at a future which may appear almost as miraculous as the first Christmas.
POINSETTIA CARE CALENDER
November through the holidays:
- Select a poinsettia whose small central flowers are tightly clustered, and whose foliage is crisp and green all the way down to the soil.
- Protect the plant from cold winds during transportation to its destination.
- Unwrap the plant at once and place it in a draft-free cool room — 72 degrees in the day and 60 degrees at night. Provide six hours daily of natural light that is bright enough to read by.
- Keep the soil moist to the touch, but don’t allow water to stand in the plant saucer.
After January 1:
- Once the plant shows signs of new growth, apply all-purpose houseplant fertilizer at half-strength each every watering.
After St. Patrick’s Day, 17:
- Give the plant a thorough cleaning. Remove fading bracts, and drying foliage.
- Loosen the top of the soil and add and inch or two of sterile plant mix.
- Move the plant to a brighter location.
After Memorial Day, May 30:
- Promote side branching by cutting back by at least two inches all the stems and branches. Reduce extra long branches by half.
- Repot the plant in a larger container and fill with sterile plant mix.
- Move the plant outdoors to low indirect light for a week or so, then to bright indirect light. Keep the soil moist.
After Independence Day, July 4:
- Cut back all the new growth to promote side branching.
- Move the plant to full sunlight.
- Fertilize at full strength at each watering.
After Labor Day:
- Move the plant indoors to a sunny window.
- Reduce the fertilization to half strength.
After the first day of autumn, Sept. 21:
- Provide the poinsettia with 12 hours of full sun or bright light, and 12 hours of continuous unbroken darkness, in a room where temperatures are 62 to 65 degrees at night.
- Rotate the plant weekly so all sides receive equal light.
After Thanksgiving Day:
- Discontinue the short day/long night treatment, and move the plant to bright sun for at least six hours daily.
- Reduce the amount of fertilizer by half again. With luck, by the holidays the poinsettia will color up again. But even if it doesn’t, the poinsettia will have grown into a handsome foliage plant, one that will help to scrub the indoor air of assorted pollutants.