University of Vermont
Holiday News Article
Department of Plant and Soil Science
WHY DO WE HAVE POINSETTIAS?
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
With poinsettias being 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 del Alarcon in
southern Mexico, extending to Guatemala. Growing year round as a woody
shrub, to ten feet high, it bloomed during the shorter days of winter.
(Research 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). In Chile and Peru it was called
“Crown of the Andes”.
The Aztecs used the plant they called "cuetlaxochitl" not only for
decoration, but for practical uses. They made a purplish dye from its
bracts (the colored parts we think of as the flowers), and used its milky
latex sap to treat fevers. In Guatemala, the latex has been used as a
remedy for toothache and vomiting, and poultices of the leaves used for
aches and pains. In both this country and Mexico, the latex has been
used as a hair removal cream.
Perhaps the first use of the poinsettia for holidays, due to its time of
bloom and beautiful color, predated its "discovery." During the
seventeenth century, Franciscan priests near Taxco used the flower in a
nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre.
A Mexican legend provides a different source of the use of the poinsettia
for Christmas. According to this, the girl Maria and her brother Pablo
(sometimes called Pepita with her cousin Pedro), brought a bouquet of the
green leaves of this roadside weed to church, as a present for the baby
Jesus. When she laid them at the nativity scene on Christmas Eve, the green
leaves burst into bright red petals. From this event the plant gets
the Spanish name Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
Perhaps the first mention of the poinsettia plant by a botanist was in the
seventeenth century by Spanish botanist Juan Balme. Yet, it had been known
to some Europeans since the 1570’s, in the writings of Francisco Hernandez.
He was a physician to Philip II, King of Spain, visiting Mesoamerica,
studying and writing about natural history, including this plant he saw
The first specimens of the poinsettia, and the earliest illustrations, date
to the Sesse and Mocino expedition in Mexico (New Spain) around 1800, giving
the plant an early name (Euphorbia fastuosa). A subsequent
expedition by famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt, along with Aime
Bonpland, sent specimens in 1804 back to his mentor in Berlin—Carl
Willdenow—who named it differently (Euphorbia coccinea). Thanks
to modern technology, you can view this original herbarium specimen from the
herbarium of the Berlin Botanical Garden (www.bgbm.org/en/herbarium).
Later specimens from explorers Christian Schiede and Ferdinand Deppe, in
1828, were given the scientific name that we use today (Euphorbia
pulcherrima) by Berlin botanist Johann Klotzsch, from the name coined
Poinsettia is a member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, a large family
with about 7,500 different member species. The genus name (Euphorbia)
refers to the Greek physician Euphorbus who, in the first century A.D., used
the latex sap of species in this genus for medicinal purposes similar to the
Aztecs later. The species name (pulcherrima) means “most
beautiful”. Poinsettia--the common name we use today-- was believed to
have come from gardener and historian William Prescott around 1836, in honor
of Joel Poinsett.
The first of the three people responsible for the poinsettia's popularity
today was Joel Roberts Poinsett, Ambassador (at that time this post was
referred to as “Minister”) to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. (As a side
note, it is he who later co-founded what we know today as the Smithsonian
Institution.) Mr. Poinsett was also a keen botanist, and sent some of
these plants in 1828 to his own greenhouses on his Greenville, South
Carolina plantation. From there he propagated the plants, sending them
to friends and relatives. This is considered the first collection of living
plants—the previous collections were dried herbarium specimens.
One of these that received some of the first poinsettias was the second
person responsible for promoting the poinsettia. Colonel Robert Carr,
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 to European
trade and gardens.
The poinsettia was shipped around the country during the 1800's, more as an
outdoor plant for warm climates. It even made it to Egypt in the
1860’s, where it is cultivated and called Bent El consul, or “the consul’s
daughter”, after ambassador Joel Poinsett.
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
later, due to development, he was forced to move south to Encinitas where
the Paul Ecke Ranch continues to produce poinsettias today. Starting in the
1960’s, poinsettias were produced, as they are today, in greenhouses.
Through the marketing efforts of Paul Ecke and his sons, the poinsettia has
become symbolic with Christmas. An Act of Congress has even set
December 12, the death of Joel Poinsett, as National Poinsettia Day to
commemorate this man and this plant. Originally only red in
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 white. While early ones sold were naturally tall, those today
are compact with a much better growth habit.
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