Native to Mexico, the Christmas Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was "discovered" by the American Minster to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. In addition to his ambassador role, Poinsett was also a botanist and physician. In 1828, while living in southern Mexico, Poinsett sent cuttings of the plant to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. The plants were used for a holy day, the Dia de la Virgen, in Mexico. Poinsett then presented President Andrew Jackson with the plants for a Christmas display at the White House, sprouting their relationship with the Christmas season.
Long ago in Mexico, the legend goes, a young child felt ashamed that they didn't have a gift for the baby Jesus during their town's Christmas procession. An angel visited the child and told them a gift given in love was a most beautiful present. The child collected some weedy flowers growing alongside a road, and when the child presented the flowers to the baby, they turned a wonderful scarlet color. This led to the naming of the plant as the La Flor de la Nochebuena or Flower of the Holy Night. The relationship of Poinsettias and the Christmas season was also strengthened during the 17th century. Franciscan friars adorned their altars and churches with Poinsettias for their Christmas celebrations, associating the circle of red bracts as an image of the Star of Bethlehem.
The plant's scientific name translates to "most beautiful Euphorbia." Their beauty comes from the large reddish bracts or modified leaves that encircle the cluster of tiny flowers. Unlike many Euphorbs that bear toxic milky sap, the Poinsettias do not. Another reason these plants have gained in popularity. Today, the poinsettia industry tallies roughly $250 million dollars annually and ranks as the best selling potted plant during a six week period in the winter. Because of its association with Christmas and some marketing savvy, the Poinsettia has been established as a holiday season plant.
Poinsettia Day, December 12, honors the death of Joel Poinsett in 1851 and his contribution of bringing this plant out of Mexico. Another American who elevated the Poinsettia was Paul Ecke. He figured out a way to get the seedlings to branch, forming a fuller plant, by grafting different varieties together. His technique was a highly coveted secret for many years. His son, Paul Ecke, Jr. is often considered the father of the Poinsettia industry for developing a stronger association of the Poinsettia to the Christmas holidays through his shrewd marketing and distribution network. Whereas his grandfather sold the plants on street corners, the grandson shipped the plants worldwide. In 1991, a graduate student published a paper that revealed Ecke's growing technique and this opened up completion to the Ecke family's monopoly. Today, the plants are grown in various countries and recently a Dutch-based company purchased the Ecke family's business.
Caring for a Poinsettia is much like any other houseplant. Provide them with light and allow the plants to become slightly dry between watering. Feeding with a liquid fertilizer is recommended. After flowering, the plants drop their colorful bracts. Though the plants may look a little ragged, they can continue to grow, but getting them to rebook the following Christmas takes some extra care. Depending upon your location, Poinsettias can be moved outdoors (mild climates) or keep indoors (colder climates). The stems will need to be cut back and the plants repotted in the spring in a soilless potting mix. As the plants grow, pinch back some of the stem growth to keep the plants from becoming too leggy. Considered short-daylight plants, Poinsettias need an extended dark period for several months prior to Christmas to flower. Moving the plant between a sunny window and a darkened room in the evenings will delay the flowering process.
Though there are several plants associated with the Christmas holiday season, the Christmas tree and the Poinsettia share the spotlight as the plants of Christmas.