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The Poinsettia
Centre of the City, Toronto, November/December 2005.

Like the Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe and reindeer, the poinsettia plant has become part of our Christmas tradition – no small feat for a tender plant not indigenous to our part of the world, at all.

Native to Central America, in Aztec, the poinsettia’s name is cuetlayochitl, meaning “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure”. Throughout the region, it has gone by several names. In Chile and Peru, the poinsettia is called the “Crown of the Andes”, and it has also been called the lobster flower and the flame leaf flower.

The Legend of the Poinsettia dates back several centuries. It states that one Christmas Eve in a little Mexican village, little Pepita had no gift to present at the chapel. Her cousin, Pedro, said, “I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a bouquet of common weeds. The humble nature of her gift made her sadder than ever. As she bent to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene, the weeds turned brilliant red, and witnesses told of a Christmas miracle, right before their eyes. From that day forward, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, as they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

The poinsettia’s march to fame was begun by the United States Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. During a visit to Southern Mexico, Ambassador Poinsett (also known for founding the Smithsonian Institute) visited a region known as Taxco del Alarcon, and became enamoured with the plant. He sent some back to his South Carolina plantation, where he propagated more, and gave them away to friends and to botanical gardens. The recipient of one of his plants – John Bartram of Philadelphia, passed his plant on to a nurseryman friend of his – Robert Bluist, also of Pennsylvania. Bluist is credited with being the first to sell the plant as euphorbia pulcherrima, the poinsettia’s botanical name. Around 1836, it started being known by the name of poinsettia, and became common in the US around 1850.

Albert Ecke, an immigrant fruit and dairy farmer in California, and his son Paul, became interested in the poinsettia, and felt that the plant could become an ideal official holiday flower. They started growing the poinsettias in fields, selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Paul travelled the country, promoting the poinsettia as a holiday flower and teaching growers all about the plant. His advertising and education campaign made the poinsettia an increasingly necessary part of the holiday season.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, the Ecke family concentrated on cultivating bigger, better poinsettias. Other commercial horticultural firms got involved, and the industry grew. Poinsettias are now the best selling potted plant in the United States. Sixty million pots of poinsettias were grown in 1997, with an average yearly worth of $220US million. All 50 states grow poinsettias commercially, with California being the top producer. The Paul Ecke Ranch, in California, claims responsibility for 70 percent of all flowering poinsettias in the US, and more than 50 percent of all flowering poinsettias in the world got their start with this grower.

As a result of the continued research and development, in addition to the traditional full red poinsettia, cultivars are available tall, short, thin, thick; with super-sized blooms or a rose-like appearance; in white, purple and pink; and with either all green or variegated foliage,

The poinsettia is part of the Euphorbia family of plants, which contains about 1,000 species, including what we commonly refer to as spurge. What we call the flower of the poinsettia are actually the bracts – the parts surrounding the flower. The flower is the little knobs that grow in the middle. A fresh poinsettia is one on which little or no yellow pollen is showing on the flower clusters in the center of the bracts.

Perennials, these plants can grow up to 10 feet tall, but will lose their leaves if they are exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees or above 80. So in Toronto, they likely won’t do too well in our gardens, no matter what kind of year we have. They prefer moderately moist soil. Indoors, water thoroughly, so the water drips through the pot, but never let your poinsettia sit in water. Feed every 2 weeks with 10-10-10 when the plant is growing. To get your poinsettia to flower next December, keep at 50 degrees in total darkness for 14 hours per day from September. Let no light in, during those periods of darkness, or you’ll delay the bloom.

In recent years, misinformation sprang up regarding the poisonous properties of the poinsettia. According to a study at Ohio State University, “a 50 pound child who ate 500 bracts (the bloomy parts) might have a slight tummy ache”. Poinsettias do appear on many toxic plan lists because when consumed in large quantities, they may cause upset stomach. Onions also appear on many of these same lists.

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
Available now on Amazon.com