A truly festive plant – the Poinsettia

Now that the last piles of dirty snow have melted, we will soon forget the intense cold, the dark grey skies and the other things which make up a New England winter. However, it does give me a little time to reflect on those things which symbolise the passing of the winter season, and the various festivals (both religious and secular) which take place at that time.

From early December, in window displays and shopping malls, supermarkets and building foyers, there appears a startlingly coloured plant. Deep green foliage with what appear to be huge red blossoms – these are Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). These plants – in their native Mexico and Guatemala – grow as a shrub or small tree up 15 feet tall. What appear to be the ‘flowers’ are, in fact, bracts, a specialised form of coloured leaf which is used to attract pollinators, where the actual flower-like structures (in this case called cyathia), are small and relatively insignificant. Poinsettias usually have red bracts, but shops are now selling ‘white’ and ‘pink’ versions – although cream, orange and other colours are known.

The Poinsettia is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851) the very first Minister to Mexico (1825 – 1830, this was before the US appointed ambassadors), a most erudite statesman, diplomat and botanist. Poinsett discovered the plant in southern Mexico, and sent samples home to South Carolina. The plant had long been associated with Christmas Eve – it is known in Mexico as ‘Noche Buena’, Christmas Eve – and use of the plant during the festive season spread rapidly. Unusually, one family is almost completely responsible for the universal adoption of the Poinsettia. In the early 1900s, Albert Ecke left Germany for Fiji, where he wanted to establish a health spa. He got as far as California, and decided to try his luck there, instead of Fiji! Establishing a farm in the Los Angeles area, he eventually became the world’s most prolific breeder and seller of Poinsettias. The plants were established as commercial crops in Australia, Egypt, Holland and many other countries. Although the Ecke family no longer grow Poinsettias commercially in the United States, they are heavily involved in the provision of grafted stock for other growers, and in production outside the USA .

There is an urban legend that Poinsettias are poisonous. Actually, tests conducted by the Society of American Florists and Ohio State University have shown that a 50 pound child could eat 500 bracts without any ill effects. The only significant fact to remember is that when cut or crushed, the sap which oozes out of the plant will cause a reaction in those individuals who are sensitive to latex. Other than that, the Poinsettias may be classified as non-toxic.

Be it red or cream or white or pink, the Poinsettia is a plant which signifies the arrival of the holiday season to many. Long may it bring cheer to us all !

2 comments on “A truly festive plant – the Poinsettia”

  1. What nice thinsg to learn about this plant, especially its original locality of Mexico. The USA also obtained the pepper plant used in Tobasco sauce from Mexico. Two wonderful gifts 🙂


    • Thank you! It was fun detailing the story, particularly how Albert Ecke REALLY wanted to get to Fiji, but ended up in California!


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