Euphorbia pulcherrima, the botanical name, or poinsettia as we call it is native to Mexico and Guatemala in Central America. Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae family. Many plants in this family ooze a milky sap. The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was given to the poinsettia by German botanist, Karl Ludwig Wilenow. The plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “very beautiful”.
The History of the Poinsettia in its Native Habitat
The Aztecs in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries called this plant “Cuetlaxochitl” in their native Nahuatl language. Cuitllatl means “residue” and xochiti means flower, thus it is “the flower that grows in the residues or soil”. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, had poinsettia plants brought up to what is present day Mexico City by caravans. The Aztecs saw the plant as a symbol of purity and used it as a dye and against fevers.
Seventeenth century Spanish botanist Don Juan Balme mentions poinsettia plants in his writings. He found the plant flourishing on the slopes and in the valleys near Cuernavaca. He described the plant as having large green leaves and a small flower surrounded by brilliant red bracts, almost as if for protection.
At the same time the Spanish Franciscan Friars, who settled in the Taxco region of southern Mexico, included the timely winter grown red blooms of the plants in their Fiesta de Pesebre, the Nativity procession. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and was named “Noche Buena” meaning Christmas Eve. The name “poinsettia” is derived from Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first United States Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Mr. Poinsett first brought poinsettia plants to America.
Poinsettias are fascinating winter blooming small shrubs or trees which can grow anywhere from about two to sixteen feet tall. Dark green leaves which are about three to six inches in length add to the festive appearance of this plant.
The colored bracts of poinsettia plants are actually leaves. Colors of the bracts can be red, pink, orange, white, or marbled. These colored bracts are caused by photoperiodism. Many flowering plants use a photoreceptor protein, such as phytochrome or cryptochrome, to sense changes between daylight and the darkness of night or photoperiod, which they take as signals to flower.
People not familiar with poinsettia plants believe that the colored bracts are the actual flowers. But the flowers, called cyathia, are located at the center of each leaf bunch.
Poinsettia plants are considered toxic by many. But this is not the case. They may cause mild skin irritations to some individuals who are sensitive to it. If any part of the plant is ingested, it may cause an upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting. In addition, the sap that exudes from a broken branch may cause temporary blindness if it comes in contact with the eyes.
History of the Poinsettia Arrival in the Unites States and its Name
The poinsettia was introduced to the United States by Mr. Poinsett in 1828. He had sent and brought cuttings from Mexico to his greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina. He shared these cuttings with friends and other horticulturalists he knew at the time.
Euphorbia pulcherrima, the name originally given by German botanist Karl Ludwig Wilenow was changed to “Poinsettia” in honor of Mr. Poinsett in 1836 by William Prescott, the historian and horticulturalist, who was asked to rename the plant. In his newly published historical work at the time on Mexico, ‘Conquest of Mexico’, Mr. Prescott details Mr. Poinsett’s discovery of this beautiful plant in the area of Taxco del Alarcon in southern Mexico.
During the 1920s Albert Ecke and his son Paul became interested in poinsettia plants which grew wild in southern California at this time. As these plants bloomed during the Holiday season both Albert and Paul thought that this would be a perfect plant to introduce to the public. Paul continued to foster the idea of making the poinsettia the “official holiday flower” for Christmas. They grew fields of poinsettia plants and began to sell them commercially. The plants were initially sold at roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area.
In 1923 the family moved their business to Encinitas, about 2 hours south of the very fast developing area around Los Angeles. Encinitas proved to be the perfect location for growing poinsettias as it mirrored the growing conditions of its native Mexico where these plants grow wild.
From 1923 to the mid-1960s they grew fields of poinsettia mother plants, and shipped them to plant nurseries around the country that purchased them for cultivation and future commercial sales. Paul personally traveled the country promoting the plant to nurseries nationwide and encouraged nursery owners to market the plant as a holiday flower.
But this changed in 1963 when the first commercial-quality poinsettia cultivar was developed. It grew best as a potted plant and was introduced to the public. This dramatically changed the nature of commercially growing and selling poinsettia plants. Even for the Ecke Family Business, they moved indoors from the fields to growing these smaller plants in greenhouses. They began shipping by air freight rather than by rail.
Paul Jr. with his marketing ideas to always keep the poinsettia plant in the public eye used the very popular growing medium of television to promote these bright red and later red and white potted flowering plants. They became a part of the scenery in most every popular TV show and all the Christmas Specials during the holiday season. No holiday scene would be complete without at least one blooming poinsettia plant.
Today Dr. Ruth Kobayashi continues to produce new poinsettia hybrids for the Ecke family. Dr. Kobayashi’s work resulted in the knowledge of the most important poinsettia genetics known today. In 2002 ‘Prestige Red’ was introduced known for its outstanding branching capabilities and very sturdy stems. ‘Prestige Red’ quickly became the number one selling red poinsettia. Presently experiments continue to breed other species with the Euphorbia genus. Currently there are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available.
Here are some of the cultivar names exhibiting some of the most spectacular poinsettia colors available today: Cortez Red, Cranberry Punch, Flirt, Galaxy Red, Marblestar, Nutcracker Pink, Monet, Plum Pudding, Silverstar White, Sonora Fire, Victory Red, White Christmas, Spotlight Apricot, and Pearl.
In addition many commercial growers have cultivated new plants which have longer lasting bract colors and lasting foliage that can survive poor watering schedules. Poinsettia growers have characteristically made today’s plants bruise resistant and more flexible with less fragile bracts that can survive shipping without dropping their leaves that allows them to arrive beautifully intact to the stores and nurseries for retail sales.
Initial Care of your newly purchased Plant….
When purchasing poinsettia plants make sure the plant is wrapped properly to protect it from cold temperatures during the trip home.
Place it near a sunny window. Maintain a temperature above 65 degrees F. Mist the plant daily with lukewarm water. To avoid spots on the leaves from misting use distilled water. Water the plant when the surface is dry to the touch. Water thoroughly until the water completely drains into the saucer. Make sure to empty the saucer of drained water. Keep the plant away from all drafty areas, hot or cold air.
Poinsettia Care after the Holidays….
January to March– Keep watering when the surface is dry and misting the plant throughout the day (3-4 times). Poinsettias love the humidity the misting creates.
April– Gradually decrease watering allowing the poinsettia plant to get dry between watering. But be careful that the plant does not shrivel. Discontinue misting during this period. After your poinsettia is used to this dryness, move it to a cool basement or any place where the temperature is about 60 degrees F for a period of about four weeks.
May– Cut the plant back to about 4-5 inches above the soil level, repot into the next size container and sprinkle one tablespoon of bone meal over the roots. At this time you may also add some slow release fertilizer, like 14-14-14, or 19-6-12 for faster growth. Water the newly transplanted plant with Superthrive or any transplant solution which contains Vitamin B1. Now it’s time to place your poinsettia plant in a sunny window where the temperature is above 65 degrees F. Mist the plant daily and water when the surface is dry. If you haven’t added a slow release fertilizer while transplanting, start fertilizing with an all purpose fertilizer every two weeks as soon as new growth appears.
June– Move your poinsettia plant outside into a partial sunny location and continue to water and fertilize it.
July– At the beginning of the month cut back each stem about an inch. This will encourage your poinsettia to branch resulting in a bushy plant. If you don’t pinch it back, your poinsettia grows tall without side branches.
August– By now your plant should have branched well and it’s time to cut it back one more time so each shoot has about four leaves left. At this time continue with your fertilizing, misting, and watering schedule.
September– Continue to fertilize, misting, and water and make sure the temperature stays above 65 degrees F.
October– As your poinsettia needs short days in order to set buds, you have to provide it with twelve hours of total darkness starting the first day of October. Give the plant darkness from 5 pm to 8 am every day during this period. Without these additional hours of darkness poinsettias won’t set buds and the leaves remain green. Place a box or black plastic bag over the poinsettia plant making sure no light reaches the plant. During daytime move the plant to a sunny window and continue to fertilize, misting, and water.
November– At the end of the month discontinue the darkness treatment and leave the plant in its sunny window. At this time you should be able to see flower buds.
December– Discontinue fertilizing about the middle of the month. Continue watering and misting and treat your poinsettia plant just like you did after you bought it. At this time your poinsettia should be blooming again.
Like many tropical plants poinsettias can be grown successfully indoors when properly tested and proven guidelines are followed. One can enjoy poinsettia plants for months until it is time to bring out the Easter Lily.