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The History of Poinsettias

Updated on December 19, 2016
Jimm Fowler profile image

Jimm Fowler is a lifelong student of trivia. Holding two degrees in history and one in communications, Jimm enjoys sharing trivia and facts.

The Christmas Plant

The Poinsettia plant is a common gift shared amongst Americans when they go to holiday parties in the United States. With it’s broad green and bright red leaves, the plant is synonymous with Christmas. You might be surprised to know that this beautiful potted plant has only been a popular Christmas favorite in the United States for about the last 70 years or so. It is a story of industry, genetic modification, and smart marketing.

The Poinsettia Plant

The Poinsettia plant is native to Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Of the 100 varieties of Poinsettias, most grow in the wild jungles and tropical jungles of the Pacific coast and the interior of the country. Most people consider the Poinsettia plant to have red flowers on them, but these are actually leaves. Also, you can find them in a variety of colors, other than red, from orange to pink to even a marbled pattern. Because the colorful part of the plant are leaves, Poinsettias are not pollinated by bees, but grow on their own.

The plant itself does have some medicinal uses, although none of these have any recent clinical testing associate with them due to the toxicity of the Poinsettia. The Aztecs once used the colorful leaves in different types of dye. They also used it as an antipyretic to reduce fever. Some other uses have been as an antibacterial, and as an emetic to induce vomiting. Folk uses include remedies for skin, warts, and toothache.

Origins with Christmas

So, by now you are probably wondering how a slightly poisonous plant became a standard for the holiday season? According to "The Legends and Traditions of Holiday Plants | Horticulture and Home Pest News" (www.ipm.iastate.edu), the poinsettia has been associated with Christmas since the 16th century when a poor girl, named Maria, was too poor to make a sacrifice for Christmas. An angel came to her and told her to pick some weeds and to make them her offering. She did so and the weeds sprouted into brilliant red and green plants, the poinsettia, which came to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. A century later, Franciscan monks were using the poinsettias to decorate churches.

Poinsettias in the United States

Very few people in the United States had ever heard of the poinsettia until the early 20th century. In 1900, a German immigrant, named Albert Ecke, saw the plants down in Mexico and started to sell them at street stands in Los Angeles. His son, Paul, learned how to genetically modify and graft the plants, but it was the grandson, Paul, Jr., who actually made the poinsettia a Christmas sensation. Paul Ecke, Jr. got the idea of sending free poinsettias to television stations across the United States to place in their news stations. The colorful plants caught on and before long, Ecke was appearing on the Tonight Show and other Christmas specials. The poinsettias were a huge hit. Up until 1991, the Ecke family had a monopoly on the poinsettia plant due to their secret way of grafting the poinsettia to make a fuller, luxurious plant. That all changed in 1991 when the method of doing this was published and opened up to the world. The Ecke family still controls 70 percent of the United States poinsettia market and half of the world market at Christmas time. In 2008, they moved their operations from California to Guatemala and as of 2012, they are also working with the Dutch based, Agribio Group. [Source: eke.com]

Christmas Poinsettia Plant

Poinsettias

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