by 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 10 feet high, it bloomed during the shorter days of winter.
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 17th 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 17th century by Spanish botanist Juan Balme. Yet, it had been known to some Europeans since the 1570s, 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 growing wild.
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). 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 by Willdenow.
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 to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Mr. Poinsett was also a keen botanist, and sent some of these plants in 1828 to his own greenhouses on his Greenville, SC, 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 1800s, more as an outdoor plant for warm climates. It even made it to Egypt in the 1860s, 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 1960s, 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 Dec. 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.