Unearthing the roots of the poinsettia

One of the Christmas traditions we all love is to own or give a beautiful poinsettia.

One of the Christmas traditions we all love is to own or give a beautiful poinsettia.

I still catch myself calling it a ‘poinsettia,’ which is a hard habit to break from my childhood days when I couldn’t pronounce it properly.

It had never occurred to me that this plant actually turned into something else until I visited a private garden in Kenya years ago and there before me stood a 12-foot high poinsettia tree!  That was news to me, and I confess I haven’t learned much about them since. So I’ve dug out some more interesting points about the poinsettias.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a plant species of the diverse spurge family that is native to Mexico and (yet to be confirmed by botanists) in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They are popular and widely grown in subtropical climates such as Australia, South America and Africa.

It derives its name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant in the states in 1825, which now celebrates a National Poinsettia Day on Dec. 12.

It is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of two to 16 feet, and to date there are more than 100 cultivated varieties. The plant bears dark green dentate leaves and the coloured bracts – which are most often flaming red, but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled — are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colours, but are actually leaves. The colours of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time, for at least five days in a row) to change colour and at the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest colour. The flowers of the poinsettia (cyathia), are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, but are unassuming and do not attract pollinators.

The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication. Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as “Noche Buena,” meaning Christmas Eve.

The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl named Pepita who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but instead was directed by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Spain it is known as “Flor de Pascua, ”meaning “Easter flower,” and in both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as the “Crown of the Andes.”

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke landed in Los Angeles and started selling poinsettias. His son, Paul developed the grafting technique, but it was the third generation, Paul Ecke, Jr. who advanced the association between the plant and Christmas. Until the 1990s, the Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias by having created a bushier plant by grafting two varieties together. However, their method was eventually discovered and published, which allowed competitors to move in.

Paul Ecke III, decided to stop producing plants in the U.S., but as of 2008, they still serve about 70 per cent of the domestic market and 50 per cent of the world market.

With care, the poinsettia can be induced to ‘reflower’ after the initial display when purchased. They prefer a well-lit room with moist but well-drained soil.

Poinsettias are susceptible to several diseases, mostly fungal, but also bacterial and parasitic, and has a mild toxicity level.

I kept one of these plants years ago and it grows like a tall bonsai by my kitchen window, still healthy and happy.  Most of us keep them for the season, so when it ends, don’t just chuck it out in the garbage.  Honour it by cutting it up and putting it into your compost so it can contribute to a healthy soil supply for this coming gardening season.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

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