The poinsettia is a favorite every Christmas in America. A small tree or shrub, indigenous to Mexico, poinsettia are well known for their brilliant red and green foliage, making them what most people visualize when talking about Christmas plants. In fact, in Mexico and Guatemala, the plant is known as Flor de Noche Buena, which translates to “Christmas Eve Flower.” But what are the plants' origins and history? In truth, the poinsettia's cultivation and use stretches back far beyond the American holiday tradition. Interested? Read on!
The History of the Poinsettia
Native to Mexico, poinsettia trace their roots back to the Mesoamerican empires of the region. The Aztecs in particular cultivated and grew these beautiful plants for both their aesthetics and practical uses. Poinsettia was grown in those days for their red pigments, which could be used for dyes. The Aztec also used it as medication to treat fevers. In the Aztec language, the plant's name translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.” It is here, in Mexico, that we find poinsettia's first connection with the Christmas season and traditions. A legend tells of a girl in the 1600s who wanted to offer up a Christmas gift to Jesus, but was too poor to buy one. The story goes, an angel told the girl to gather up some weeds and present them before the church's altar. The weeds blossomed into flowers and became poinsettia. Jump forward a century, and we find Mexican Franciscan friars using the poinsettia in their Christmas traditions. The telltale star pattern in the leaves was said to represent the star of Bethlehem, and red pigment (which had, years before, been used by the Aztecs as dye) was said to be symbolic of the blood Jesus Christ shed on the Cross during the Crucifixion.
So how did the American tradition get started? To find this, we must look back a century, to Los Angeles in the year 1900. A man named Albert Ecke left Germany and moved to the States, and opened an orchard. He began selling the poinsettias on the roadside. His son, Paul Ecke, developed a unique grafting technique to make the plants more beautiful and hardy. In turn, his son, Paul Ecke Junior, really pushed the Christmas connection. He shipped by air plants for no cost to television stations between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to be displayed on their broadcasts. He also appeared on television shows himself to push the plants.
The Ecke's aforementioned technique for grafting resulted in a fuller and brighter plant by fusing two separate varieties of poinsettia together, making every seedling branch on its own. For some time, this technique was known only to the Ecke's, giving them almost unchallenged control of the market. Then, in 1991, the technique was discovered and published. This variety of poinsettia is by far the seasonal favorite, with others appearing too “weedy.” It is interesting to note that what most people believe to be the plant's flowers are actually modified leaves, called “bracts.” The flowers are much smaller parts, inside the plants. The leaves attract pollinating insects to the deeper parts of the flower. Another commonly held misconception is that these plants are toxic or poisonous to humans. The fact is, a study found that a fifty pound human child would have to ingest over five hundred leaves to have any kind of reaction.
Poinsettia plants are beautiful additions to any holiday, at home or at work. However, as they have been forced into bloom, they do require some extra care to keep them in bloom for the whole season. What kind of care to your new Christmas plants require? Well, to start with, they should be put in plenty of sunlight. As plants native to the tropics, this is important for their health and often overlooked. Extreme temperatures are another important piece. Poinsettia thrive best in temperatures between 65-75 F. Humidity is another common issue. If the air is dry, you may have to water more frequently than you would otherwise expect.
Many are interested in keeping their poinsettia alive year round, and have them bloom again next season. First, keep the plants' temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees, to keep them from dropping their leaves. Again, keep them in the sunlight and water when the soil is dry to the touch. When spring rolls around, trim four inches or so from each stem to ensure a full growth in winter. Keep the plant a bit drier and begin fertilizing now. In the summer, move the plant away from constant direct sunlight. Too much summer heat, like from the afternoon sun, is bad for the plant. They can be kept outside in a partially shaded location. When the temperatures drop again, bring the plant back inside. In the fall, the plant should be kept indoor and given twelve hours a day of darkness. This lasts about eight weeks, and ensures that the plants bloom on time for Christmas.
Getting Them To Rebloom
It is possible to get your holiday poinsettia to rebloom next Christmas season, but it can be tricky, and requires a bit of work on your part. Plants that are kept inside usually will not rebloom. Also, it is important to remove the colored foil around the plant, as this can trap moisture inside the pot and cause root rot for the plant. The plant should be watered when the top inch or so of soil is dry. It is also important to give the poinsettia some sunlight during the day, maybe by keeping it in a West or South window. After the winter has ended and there is no further risk of frost, you want to move your plant outside where it can get a lot of good sunlight during the day. This helps keep the plant healthy. Stems should be cut to about six inches, keeping some leaves. In early fall, before the night temperatures reach 40 degrees, bring the plant back inside. Find a nice spot for it to get ten hours of daylight and fourteen hours of dark. After two months of this, the bracts should be growing back in. This is a yearlong undertaking, but definitely worthwhile.
Poinsettia are everyone's favorite flowering plant around the holidays. From Mexico to Egypt, the beautiful poinsettia are cultivated, and, thanks to the Eckes, a huge market has been carved out in America. Don't miss out! Drop by the Black Opal Florist, your one stop shop for holiday flowers, and pick up your poinsettia today!