Poinsettias have a long connection to Christmas

Published 7:06 pm Friday, December 13, 2019

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By Kristi Hendricks

You don’t need to be a gardener to celebrate Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day. Poinsettias are one of our favorite plants to celebrate the holiday season with their beautiful coloration ranging from white, pink, red to variegated.

Euphorbia pulcherrima’s connection to the Christmas season dates back to the 16th century in Mexico where the poinsettia grows as a straggly deciduous shrub. Legend has it that a young girl was concerned that she had no gift to celebrate the Christ Child’s birthday because she was so poor. An angel tells her to give any gift with her love. So, she gathered weeds from the roadside and placed them in the manger. These wildflowers bloomed into the beautiful red stars of poinsettia.

But the story goes back even further. The Aztecs believed that the poinsettia was the true symbol of purity and often used in their rituals. They prized the plants for the vibrant red dye produced from its leaves.

Spanish monks settled in the south of Mexico later in the 17th century and cultivated the plant by the eve of the holiday because of its scarlet color and resemblance to the star of Bethlehem. The flowering plant was called Noche Buena, meaning the Christmas Eve.

Joel Roberts Poinsett first brought the poinsettia to the United States. Poinsett was an American botanist and the first U.S. minister to Mexico. In 1825, he sent cuttings of the poinsettia plant home to Charleston, South Carolina.

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s when Paul Ecke, a second-generation farmer in California, discovered a grafting technique causing the seedlings to branch, that the poinsettia started to take root in American culture. The family began selling their Christmas flower at roadside stands and increased their sales through marketing and shipping.

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure recognizing National Poinsettia Day and the significant contributions of Ecke, forever to be known as the founding father of the America’s poinsettia industry. The date of Dec. 12 was selected to mark the death of Poinsett, the man responsible for bringing the first poinsettia plant to our country.

Each region or family may have their own distinct common name for the poinsettia such as euphorbia, Christmas flower or star of Bethlehem. Yet everyone recognizes the striking contrast between the lovely green leaves and the colorful bracts (modified leaves surrounding tiny flowers). Fewer may be aware that a poinsettia turns red in response to the short days and long nights of the approaching winter season.

For care of specialty potted plants this holiday season, first read VCE article 426-101 found at pubs.ext.vt.edu/ and forward the publication on to those you are giving gifts of plants.