Celebrate the best selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada on Poinsettia Day, December 12. The date marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American botanist, physician and Minister to Mexico who in 1828 sent cuttings of the plant he'd discovered in Southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Botanically, the plant is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.
In Mexico the plant is called La Flor de la Nochebuena, or Flower of the Holy Night, and is displayed in celebration of the December 12th Dia de la Virgen. Use of the plant to celebrate Christmas in Mexico dates back to the 17th century. The flower connects to the legend of a young girl, distraught about not having anything with which to honor the Baby Jesus in a Christmas Procession. An angel tells her that any gift given with love is a wonderful gift. Later the weeds she gathers by the roadside to place around the manger miraculously transform into the beautiful red star flower we think of as Poinsettia. But Mexico's relationship to the plant goes back even further. The Aztecs called the plant Cuitlaxochitl meaning "star flower" and used it to produce a red dye. The sap was also used to control fevers. Montezuma, last of the Aztec kings, had Poinsettias delivered to him by caravan to what is now Mexico City. (For a more detailed history of the Poinsettia, click here.)
In July of 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives created Poinsettia Day, passing a Resolution to honor Paul Ecke, Jr., who is considered the father of the poinsettia industry. Until the 1990s, the Ecke family of Encinitas, Calif., had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technological secret. The Ecke family's key to producing more desirable poinsettias was to create a fuller, more compact plant by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open shrub form. The Eckes' technique made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant. Poinsettias contribute upwards of $250,000,000 to the U.S. economy at the wholesale level.
There is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. People sensitive to latex, the milky fluid found in cut poinsettias and other plants, may experience irritation in the form of a rash if they come in contact with the sap. POISINDEX, a major source for poison control centers, says it would take 500 bracts for a 50-pound child to eat an amount found to be toxic in experiments. An Ohio State University study showed no problems even with extremely large doses.
It's the leaves, or bracts, that give the plant its color. Because the flowers are unassuming and do not attract pollinators, brightly colored leaves—aka bracts—developed. (The poinsettia's flowers are the brightly colored buds in the middle of the bracts.) The colors come from photoperiodism, meaning that they require compete darkness for 12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row to change color. At the same time, the plants need a lot of light during the day for the brightest color.
The species is native to Mexico in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. There are more than 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia available, (not including the blue-tinted glittery ones now found for sale at your local retailer!).