At this time of year, poinsettias are everywhere, it seems. I need go no further than my local grocery store to purchase an inexpensive plant, chosen from a beautiful display. A poinsettia, (Euphorbia pulcherrima- meaning the most beautiful Euphorbia) these days, cannot claim to be exceptional nor unique. Rather, it has come to be ubiquitous. That hasn’t dimmed the plant’s appeal for me though. Those bright red leaves! So lovely in the dark days of winter. So perfect for the Chrismas season. Decorating for the holidays wouldn’t be complete without a poinsettia.
Poinsettias have an interesting history. Native to Mexico, they were used by the Aztecs, who extracted a purplish dye from the bracts for use in textiles and cosmetics. (The red “flowers” are actually coloured leaves, or bracts, while the flowers are the small yellow buds in the centre, called cyathias.) They also used the white sap, now known to be latex, in a preparation to treat fevers. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851) was appointed the first American minister to Mexico in 1825. An avid amateur botanist, Poinsett was charmed by the plant and in 1828, he sent samples back to his South Carolina hothouses on his Greenville plantation.
Although the poinsettia owes its common name to Mr. Poinsett, it owes its popularity to the Ecke family. Albert Ecke, a German immigrant, arrived in the Hollywood, California area in 1900. It had been his intention to move on to Fiji to open a health spa, but he settled in California instead. Around 1911, he established a fruit orchard and dairy farm, but his real interest was flowers. He and his son Paul saw that the bright red poinsettia had potential as a holiday plant and began the production of field-grown plants. The operation was eventually moved to Encinitas, 2 hours south of Los Angeles, and until the mid 1960s, poinsettias continued to be field-grown. In 1963, developments in poinsettia breeding produced a plant appropriate for greenhouse cultivation and a new era of greenhouse-grown potted plants began.
Owing to a technological secret, which involved grafting two varieties of poinsettia together to get a bushier plant, the Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias until the 1990s. Close to 100 percent of all poinsettias sold were Eckes’ plants until the secret was discovered by a researcher. During the 1960s, Paul Ecke Jr. promoted the plants very successfully. He sent free plants to television stations for them to display on air from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and he also appeared on television programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to market the plants. In 1997, the Ecke Ranch began growing poinsettias in Guatemala, and today it is the largest poinsettia stock production facility in the world, employing over 700 people.
Poinsettias have been developed in many colours and forms, but it’s still hard to beat that bright red when it comes to Christmas decorating.
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