Poinsettias are a beloved symbol of the holidays, but have you ever wondered how these beautiful flowers came to be synonymous with Christmas? In the following video, one of our plant experts, Will, takes us on a journey through history to uncover the fascinating story behind the poinsettia's holiday fame — and he even has a few care tips to help you get the most out of your plants this holiday season and beyond!
About PoinsettiasAlthough it might surprise you based on their appearance in cultivation, poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are actually large shrubs — or small trees — that are native to Central America from Southern Mexico down into Guatemala. They grow primarily in moist, woody ravines and rocky cliff sides near the Pacific ocean, where they can reach heights of up to thirteen feet. Although they bloom in winter, you might be interested to learn that their flowers aren't their most striking feature — at least in the traditional sense. What look like petals are actually large, colorful bracts that surround an inner cluster of yellow true flowers, which are fairly insignificant by floral standards.
If you've ever brought a Poinsettia home for the holidays and accidentally snapped off a leaf or stem, you've no doubt noticed the white, milky sap that the plants exude as a defense mechanism. Poinsettias — like all Euphorbia species — contain a latex sap that is toxic if ingested, and that can cause skin irritation, so it's best to take care when handling them.
A Poinsettia by Any Other NameKnown to the Aztecs by the Nahuatl name cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-she), this plant has a long history with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Not only were its red bracts ground to create purple and red dyes used in the production of textiles, but its latex sap was used medicinally as a fever reducer. For these reasons, the Aztecs farmed cuetlaxochitl, facilitating the spread of the species in the process. In fact, while the plant's native range is primarily coastal, most of the plants in the nursery trade descend from disjunct populations further inland that can be traced back to Aztec cultivation.
With the introduction of Catholicism, cuetlaxochitl flowers became an important tool of inculturation, in which traditional iconography was given new religious significance. Their winter bloom time and deep red bracts allowed Franciscan friars to easily port Christian symbolism onto these plants, which were quickly co-opted by the church and incorporated into Christmas celebrations in the New World. Even today, you may hear the "legend" of a young girl on her way to mass on Christmas Eve, who — having no gift for Jesus — stopped to picked some weeds from the road. Upon laying them at the alter, the flowers are said to have leapt into bloom, immortalizing this plant as la flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower), which remains its common name throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world.
So where did the English name "poinsettia" come from, you ask? In the mid-1820s, an American diplomat and hobby botanist by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett became one of the first people to grow the plant outside of its native range after he sent cuttings back home from Mexico. The plant had only just been formally described by Western scientists a few years prior, and the fact that these cuttings survived the journey back to his South Carolina greenhouses is a small miracle in and of itself. (This is especially true when you consider that the Wardian case — an early terrarium that made it possible to successfully transport living plant material long distances by sea — had yet to be invented.) After early success growing these plants under glass, Poinsett shared them with fellow botanists and friends. For want of a name that rolled off the tongue more easily than Euphorbia pulcherrima, his contemporaries began calling them poinsettias, in honor of the man who first introduced them to U.S. cultivation.
Poinsettias on the World Stage
Much of the current popularity of the poinsettia is owed to a family farm much like Cornell — Ecke Ranch — who began growing and selling the plants in roadside stands in the 20th century, quickly becoming leaders in the field. The founder's grandson helped bring poinsettias into living rooms across the United States by mailing free plants to television stations to decorate the sets of talk shows and more around the holidays, boosting the plants visibility and association with the holiday. The Ecke family is also credited with creating the grafting technique that produces the compact, bushy plant we see in stores today.
Caring for Your Poinsettia
- Keep in mind that poinsettias are sensitive to cold — and to temperature swings more generally. Don't place them outside, where their leaves and bracts may come in contact with a window, or near an air conditioning or heating vent.
- Poinsettias prefer evenly moist soil; don't allow them to dry out!
- Because they have been carefully pruned into a low, bushy form, their stems are fragile. Treat them with care.
- Poinsettias need bright light to stay looking their best. Low light conditions will lead to leaf drop.
- Although most people treat them as annuals, with proper care, these plants are more than capable of coming back year after year. After the colorful bracts fade, continue to water the plant as normal into the spring, at which point, you can cut the plant back by roughly half. During the summer, you will want to fertilize your poinsettia and continue to pinch back the new growth to encourage branching. To induce blooms for the holidays, you will want to simulate shorter days beginning in late September or early October. It's important that the plant receive total darkness for 10 to 15 hours each day for several weeks, as it is this extended dark period that triggers the plant to flower. Many people elect to either place a box over their poinsettia or place it in a dark closet to ensure that no errant lights disrupt this critical process.