University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
WHY DO WE HAVE
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
With poinsettias the most popular flowering holiday plant in much of
the world, most may not stop to think just how they got to be so
popular. Their history begins in Mexico, in the early 1800's.
Poinsettias actually were around for much longer, having been
cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico before Christianity came to the
Western Hemisphere. The plant was native to an area called Taxo
Alarcon in southern Mexico. Growing year round as a woody shrub,
ten feet high, it bloomed during the shorter days of winter.
in the middle of the twentieth century showed the poinsettia requires a
specific number of hours of darkness each night in order to
Because of its brilliant color, the flower was considered a symbol of
purity by the native Mexicans. It was highly prized by Kings
Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, even though they could not grow it in
the cooler climate of their capital (present-day Mexico City).
The Aztecs used the plant they called "cuetlaxochiti" not only for
decoration, but for practical uses. They made a purplish dye from
bracts (the colored parts we think of as the flowers), and used its
milky sap or latex to treat fevers.
Perhaps the first use of the poinsettia for holidays, due to its time
of bloom and beautiful color, predated its "discovery."
17th century, Franciscan priests near Taxco used the flower in a
nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre.
The first of three people responsible for the poinsettia's popularity
was Joel Roberts Poinsett, Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to
a sidenote, it is he who later founded what we know today as the
Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Poinsett was also a keen botanist,
sent some of these plants in 1828 to his own greenhouses on his
Greenville, South Carolina plantation. From there he propagated
plants, sending them to friends and relatives.
One of these that received some of the first poinsettias was the second
person responsible for promoting the poinsettia. Colonel Robert
then owner of the famous Bartram Nursery of Philadelphia, introduced
the poinsettia into cultivation and trade in 1829 at an exhibition of
the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. In 1834, another famous
nurseryman in American history, Robert Buist, introduced the poinsettia
This plant is a member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, and was
first marketed as Euphorbia
poinsettia. A German taxonomist correctly
named it Euphorbia pulcherrima
(most beautiful) in 1833, the correct
scientific name to this day. The common name we use today was
to have been coined around 1836.
The poinsettia was shipped around the country during the 1800's, more
as an outdoor plant for warm climates. Around 1920 in southern
California, a horticulturist named Paul Ecke became the third key
person to promote the poinsettia. He felt this shrub growing wild
along roadsides would make a perfect Christmas flower, so set about
producing these in fields in what is now Hollywood. A few years
due to development, he was forced to move south to Encinitas where the
Paul Ecke Ranch continues to produce poinsettias today.
Through the marketing efforts of Paul Ecke and his sons, the poinsettia
has become symbolic with Christmas. An Act of Congress has even
December 12, the death of Joel Poinsett, as National Poinsettia
Day to commemorate this man and this plant. Originally only
color, through the breeding efforts of the Eckes and others, the
poinsettia you find today may be in all shades of red to almost purple,
pinks, bicolors, and even white.
Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles