The Plant of Christmas: The Poinsettia

The modern poinsettia. Image r	Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture</a..
The modern poinsettia. Image Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When you think of floral decorations for the Christmas holidays, one main plant comes to mind—the poinsettia. Today’s large lush poinsettias, saturated with exuberant reds and greens, feel the very embodiment of Christmas cheer. It did not have to be that way and their path to Christmas ubiquity in the 21st century is a centuries long, global journey with some crazy intrigue. It begins in Mexico, involves Aztecs, Franciscan Missionaries, an American diplomat, a horticultural monopoly broken by a graduate student (of course) and culminates in off-shore outsourcing. Yes, hold on tight for the surprisingly juicy history of the poinsettia.

A close up of a poinsettia showing the flowers. Photo by André Karwath.
A close up of a poinsettia showing the flowers. Photo by André Karwath.

Humble Beginnings

A native plant of Mexico, the poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima originated in a limited region of south central Mexico near present day Taxco. The showy red, pink, white, or bicolored portions, popularly thought of as the flower, are actually modified leaves or bracts. The true flowers are unassuming yellow structures grouped in the center of the leaf bunch.

The wild poinsettia is a far cry from what you buy today in your corner store, but the bright color still caught the eye of the Aztecs who prized them as a symbol of purity. They were its first cultivators and used the poinsettia bracts to make a reddish-purple dye, and its latex for a medicine against fever.

A ponsettia in the wild. Photo by  J.M. Garg.
A poinsettia in the wild. Photo by J.M. Garg.

The Plant of Legends

In the 17th century, after Spanish conquest, Franciscan missionaries living in an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco de Alarcon began to use the flaming red plant for nativity processions. It becomes known in Spanish as, “la flor de Nochebuena,” or the Christmas Eve flower.

Several religious stories are traced to this general time period. One is of a girl, Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. In her sadness she cries, and an angel appears and tells her to gather nearby weeds. Her tears fall upon the weeds and miraculously turn them into magnificent red blooms.

A second story, one that helped cement the plant as a Christian Christmas symbol, is of Franciscan Friars celebrating mass around a nativity scene decorated with la flor de Nochebuena. During mass, as the star of Bethlehem rises, the star shaped leaves turn from green to bright red.

One of the legends of the Poinsettia as a childrens book. See below for a link to buy it.
One of the legends of the poinsettia as a children’s book. You can buy it here.

So Why is it Called a Poinsettia?

The name Poinsettia, as it is known in the English speaking world, comes not from its religious history, but from Joel Roberts Poinsett who served as political envoy and was the first United States Minister to Mexico from 1822 to 1830. He came across the plant while visiting the Tasco region. Poinsett, a doctor and soldier, was also a skilled amateur botanist. He brought clippings home to South Carolina where they did well in his greenhouse. He gave many plants to botanical gardens and horticultural friends. Eventually, it was a nurseryman by the name of Robert Buist who was the first to sell the plant in the United States with the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, Willd.

Joel Roberts Poinsett. Drawing by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887).
Joel Roberts Poinsett. Drawing by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887).

Historian William Prescott is generally credited with giving the plant its popular name in the 1830’s after writing a book about Mexico in which he details Poinsett’s discovery and cultivation of the plant.

The Importance of Breeding

While many botanists and horticulturalists bred the Poinsettia throughout the late 1800s, its commercial potential was limited because it’s a naturally fragile and gangly plant that does not transport well. It was in the early 1920s that Paul Ecke, son of a German immigrant, gave the plant a genetic makeover that unleashed the plant’s commercial potential.

The Ecke family—now in its fourth generation as growers—is generally credited with making and keeping the poinsettia a commercial blockbuster. Albert Ecke moved to California in the early 1900s from Germany and had a farm, orchard, and dairy, and also dabbled in flowers. They sold poinsettias at their farm stand in Hollywood. His son, Paul Ecke Sr., was the genetic genius of the 1920s who figured out how to consistently create strong, uniformly perfect plants with multiple branches around a single stem.
Paul Ecke Jr. was the marketing wizard of the 1950s and 60s. He cemented the poinsettia as a cultural Christmas must-have by giving television networks scores of free poinsettias between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He would appear personally on Bob Hope’s Holiday shows and the Tonight show to extoll the virtues of the plant. Additionally, Ecke Jr. pioneered growing the plants on a commercial scale, indoors in greenhouses, not just outside.

Paul Ecke III also moved the family business forward, but he had the pot pulled out from under him, so to speak.

Click HERE for some great historic photos of the Ecke family and their ranch in 1939.

Enter the Graduate Student

The Ecke’s had a virtual monopoly on the sale of poinsettias because no one else could figure out how they reliably produced such hearty beauties. In the 1950s however, research universities in the US and Europe started poinsettia breeding programs. They made inroads, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when a graduate student published research on a grafting technique that produced similar results, that their secret was out. Apparently, Ecke III read about the research in a journal, and knew immediately his competitors, kept at bay for so many years, were now smiling widely.

Curiously, none of the newspaper articles ever say the graduate student’s name! We did a little sleuthing in the scientific literature (Mobile Ranger’s two founders are academics), tracked down the paper containing the discovery, and contacted the author. Dr. John M. Dole, now Professor and Head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Minnesota confirmed he was the graduate student and gave us a copy of the paper in question.

What’s the Secret Anyway?

To get a nice, full, bushy looking poinsettia, the plant needs to have lots of branches. What Dole and his collaborator, Harold Wilkins, discovered is that by grafting a branch from one variety of poinsettia (Annette Hegg Brilliant Diamond) onto the commercially important variety (Eckespoint C-1 Red) for as little as 10 days, some unidentified agent would be transferred which causes vigorous branching to occur. For a commercial grower, this research provides the recipe for how to create a vibrant, bushy poinsettia. Dr. Dole also said that they suspected back in the late 1980’s that the chemical might be a phytoplasma, though others suspected a mosaic virus. Phytoplasmas are specialized bacteria that are parasites on either plant phloem tissue or transmitting insects. They were discovered by scientists in 1967. Research out of the US Department of Agriculture in the 1990’s confirmed that indeed the unidentified agent was a phytoplasma. The phytoplasma causes poinsettia plants to create hormones which then lead to more branching.

First page of the 1988 paper in Acta Horticulturae by John Dole and Harold Wilkins. Paper courtesy Professor John Dole.
First page of the 1988 paper in Acta Horticulturae, by John Dole and Harold Wilkins. Paper courtesy Professor John Dole.

Soon after the 1988 publication, the Ecke’s share of the poinsettia market dropped significantly as competitors in Europe were able to produce plants of similar quality. The Ecke family was still positioned well. They held hundreds of plant patents and responded by taking plant production offshore, primarily to Guatemala. They recovered and in 2012 they had a poinsettia market share of roughly 70% in the US and about 50% globally.

But is it Safe to Eat?

You may have heard that the leaves of the poinsettia contain a deadly poison. This is not true and the myth may date back to the death of a 2-year old child of a Army officer stationed in Hawaii in 1919. The child died of poisoning and the cause was incorrectly assumed to be a poinsettia leaf. While no one has ever died from eating poinsettia leaves, it may still be best to have your children simply gaze at them, while you recount the plant’s history.

Further Resources

A fun holiday children’s read. The Miracle of the First Poinsettia: A Mexican Christmas Story, by Joanne Oppenheim, Barefoot Books; 2013.
How to keep your poinsettias past Christmas. WikiHow website.

  1. Sources Used

About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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