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History of Poinsettia plants - Euphorbia pulcherrima


Euphorbia pulcherrima, the botanical name, or poinsettia as we call it, is native to Mexico and Guatemala in Central America. Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae family. Many plants in this family ooze a milky sap. The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was given to the poinsettia by German botanist, Karl Ludwig Wilenow. The plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “very beautiful”.

The History of the Poinsettia in its Native Habitat

The Aztecs in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries called this plant “Cuetlaxochitl” in their native Nahuatl language. Cuitllatl means “residue” and xochiti means “flower”, thus it is “the flower that grows in the residues or soil”. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, had poinsettia plants brought up to what is present day Mexico City by caravans. The Aztecs saw the plant as a symbol of purity and used it as a dye and against fevers.

Seventeenth century Spanish botanist Don Juan Balme mentions poinsettia plants in his writings. He found the plant flourishing on the slopes and in the valleys near Cuernavaca. He described the plant as having large green leaves and a small flower surrounded by brilliant red bracts, almost as if for protection.

At the same time the Spanish Franciscan Friars, who settled in the Taxco region of southern Mexico, included the timely winter grown red blooms of the plants in their Fiesta de Pesebre, the Nativity procession. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and was named “Noche Buena” meaning Christmas Eve. The name “poinsettia” is derived from Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first United States Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. Mr. Poinsett first brought poinsettia plants to America.

Poinsettias are fascinating winter blooming small shrubs or trees which can grow anywhere from about two to sixteen feet tall. Dark green leaves which are about three to six inches in length add to the festive appearance of this plant.

The colored bracts of poinsettia plants are actually leaves. Colors of the bracts can be red, pink, orange, white, or marbled. These colored bracts are caused by photoperiodism. Many flowering plants use a photoreceptor protein, such as phytochrome or cryptochrome, to sense changes between daylight and the darkness of night or photoperiod, which they take as signals to flower.

People not familiar with poinsettia plants believe that the colored bracts are the actual flowers. But the flowers, called cyathia, are located at the center of each leaf bunch.

Poinsettia plants are considered toxic by many. But this is not the case. They may cause mild skin irritations to some individuals who are sensitive to it. If any part of the plant is ingested, it may cause an upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting. In addition, the sap that exudes from a broken branch may cause temporary blindness if it comes in contact with the eyes.

History of the Poinsettia’s Arrival in the Unites States and its Name

The poinsettia was introduced to the United States by Mr. Poinsett in 1828. He had sent and brought cuttings from Mexico to his greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina. He shared these cuttings with friends and other horticulturalists he knew at the time.

Euphorbia pulcherrima, the name originally given by German botanist Karl Ludwig Wilenow was changed to “Poinsettia” in honor of Mr. Poinsett in 1836 by William Prescott, the historian and horticulturalist, who was asked to rename the plant. In his newly published historical work at the time on Mexico, ‘Conquest of Mexico’, Mr. Prescott details Mr. Poinsett’s discovery of this beautiful plant in the area of Taxco del Alarcon in southern Mexico.

During the 1920s Albert Ecke and his son Paul became interested in poinsettia plants which grew wild in southern California at this time. As these plants bloomed during the Holiday season both Albert and Paul thought that this would be a perfect plant to introduce to the public. Paul continued to foster the idea of making the poinsettia the “official holiday flower” for Christmas. They grew fields of poinsettia plants and began to sell them commercially. The plants were initially sold at roadside stands in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area.

In 1923 the family moved their business to Encinitas, about 2 hours south of the very fast developing area around Los Angeles. Encinitas proved to be the perfect location for growing poinsettias as it mirrored the growing conditions of its native Mexico where these plants grow wild.

From 1923 to the mid-1960s they grew fields of poinsettia mother plants, and shipped them to plant nurseries around the country that purchased them for cultivation and future commercial sales. Paul personally traveled the country promoting the plant to nurseries nationwide and encouraged nursery owners to market the plant as a holiday flower.

But this changed in 1963 when the first commercial-quality poinsettia cultivar was developed. It grew best as a potted plant and was introduced to the public. This dramatically changed the nature of commercially growing and selling poinsettia plants. Even for the Ecke Family Business, they moved indoors from the fields to growing these smaller plants in greenhouses. They began shipping by air freight rather than by rail.

Paul Jr. with his marketing ideas to always keep the poinsettia plant in the public eye used the very popular growing medium of television to promote these bright red and later red and white potted flowering plants. They became a part of the scenery in most every popular TV show and all the Christmas Specials during the holiday season. No holiday scene would be complete without at least one blooming poinsettia plant.

Today Dr. Ruth Kobayashi continues to produce new poinsettia hybrids for the Ecke family. Dr. Kobayashi’s work resulted in the knowledge of the most important poinsettia genetics known today. In 2002 ‘Prestige Red’ was introduced known for its outstanding branching capabilities and very sturdy stems. ‘Prestige Red’ quickly became the number one selling red poinsettia. Presently experiments continue to breed other species with the Euphorbia genus. Currently there are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available.

Here are some of the cultivar names exhibiting some of the most spectacular poinsettia colors available today: Cortez Red, Cranberry Punch, Flirt, Galaxy Red, Marblestar, Nutcracker Pink, Monet, Plum Pudding, Silverstar White, Sonora Fire, Victory Red, White Christmas, Spotlight Apricot, and Pearl.

In addition many commercial growers have cultivated new plants which have longer lasting bract colors and lasting foliage that can survive poor watering schedules. Poinsettia growers have characteristically made today’s plants bruise resistant and more flexible with less fragile bracts that can survive shipping without dropping their leaves that allows them to arrive beautifully intact to the stores and nurseries for retail sales.

Copyright © Bob Walsh

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Is this another extract from your book BW?

20 Dec, 2010


I would have thought that 16 foot is rather small for Poinsettia, although this may be the case for the modern hybrids. Grown at altitude, in open ground, after several decades they can usually easily exceed that.

21 Dec, 2010


Hi Drc726,

My book is not about poinsettias. You don't even find the word 'poinsettia' in the book.

I hope this helps,


21 Dec, 2010


Hi Jasonf,

Thanks for the additional information.


21 Dec, 2010


My pleasure. If you want to research it further, I think you will find a direct correlation between temperature and cloudbase. Poinsettias do like it dry at the root but moist in the canopy. Cheers. :)

21 Dec, 2010


Hi Jasonf,

Thanks for your additional information. I will look into it.

Happy Holidays,


22 Dec, 2010

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