Native to Mexico, the bright-red poinsettia is most familiar to Americans as the colorful plant used to decorate wreaths and tabletops at Christmastime. The plant is generally grown in greenhouses in the U.S., though a related weed grows wild in the central and eastern states. Poinsettias account for about 85 percent of potted plant sales during the holiday season. In the wild, the poinsettia grows on a shrub. It was known to the Aztecs as the cuetlaxochitl and is called the Crown of the Andes by some people groups in South America. The flowers, recognizable for their star-like shape, are now grown in a variety of different colors. White, multi-colored, plum and pink have joined the traditional bright-red Poinsettia in Christmas arrangements and store displays. Though now an established holiday tradition, the gorgeous flower has a long history pre-dating its use in Christmas decor.
From Cuetlaxochitl to Poinsettia
In ancient Mexico and Central America, the cuetlaxochitl was used to make a red dye for textiles and woven items. Evidence of the flower’s cultural importance can be found in Aztec art and accounts from travelers and explorers. The plant was used during a midwinter celebration to symbolize blood sacrifices and purity, key components of ancient Aztec rituals.
Franciscan prisets who had journeyed from Spain to Mexico noted the flower’s use in such ceremonies. During the 17th century, the priests adopted the plant’s Aztec blood sacrifice imagery for use in Christian celebrations. For the priests, the flower acted as a powerful reminder for all Catholics of Christ’s bloodshed. It became integral in Catholic processions throughout the southern part of Mexico. The plant’s natural proclivity to bloom in October was also seen as a signal for the coming of the holiday season.
The sap of the plant was used medicinally in some areas, mainly to control fever. There are indications that the plant’s sap was used for other medicinal applications, though archaeologists are unsure what conditions the sap might have been used to treat. Montezuma had the plants brought to Mexico City from other areas because they couldn’t be grown in the present-day capital.
The plant was first documented by botanist Juan Balme in the 17th century. It’s scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means very beautiful. The flower remained largely unknown outside of botany circles until the early 19th century, when an American ambassador imported shoots of the flower from Mexico. In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett brought the first poinsettias into the U.S. He was passionate about botany and imported several other plant species, but none had the staying power of the Poinsettia. They were later given their popular name in his honor.
The Ecke family began growing the plants for use in outdoor gardens and landscaping design at their Southern California ranch during the early 1900′s. The family still produces many of the poinsettias sold in America. Poinsettias only flower if kept in the dark for at least 12 hours per day for several weeks. Commercial nurseries trick poinsettias into blooming prior to the holiday season via lighting manipulation. Individuals growing poinsettias at home are encouraged to place them in a dark room from 8 p.m. until at least 5 a.m. beginning in early October.
Contrary to some folklore, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans. Extensive tests have been conducted to beat this urban legend. While they can be dangerous for household pets, human consumption causes only minor stomach irritation. Some individuals are allergic to the sap and pollen of the plants. For these individuals, the holiday season can be trying. Poinsettias are literally everywhere during the months of November and December, from grocery stores to restaurants to schools.
The American Poinsettia Market
The poinsettia’s popularity as a holiday flower is likely tied both to its bright coloring and its shape. The beautiful reds, greens and yellows of the plant are reminiscent of holiday decor schemes. Some scholars have also noted the similarity in shape between the Star of Bethlehem, central to Christian stories of Jesus’s birth, and the poinsettia. A combination of this similarity in shape and the bright, beautiful colors of the poinsettia have led to its popularity as a holiday plant.
Poinsettias are now exported to markets all over the world. Well over 90 percent of exported poinsettias are grown in greenhouses in the U.S. Due to their popularity during the holiday season, the plants are grown in every state by both local and commercial greenhouses. They are sold both at florists’s shops and in grocery stores. Some schools have even adopted selling poinsettias as a holiday fundraising tradition. The plants are also considered a great host or hostess gift.
Approximately 80 percent of the poinsettias sold in the U.S. are grown at the Ecke ranch, where the poinsettia was first grown for the consumer market. The majority of poinsettias are sold in a brief, six week period before Christmas. They are generally available at other times of the year only by special order. More than 100 species of poinsettia now exist, but the majority of buyers still prefer the traditional red poinsettia. The plants are generally purchased by women for use in the home or office.
Individual poinsettia flowers are not usually sold on their own. Most poinsettias purchased in the U.S. are potted plants. With care, poinsettias can last throughout the holiday season and can survive if transplanted in some areas, particularly in the central and eastern United States. Poinsettias growing in the wild tend to prefer temperate climates. The lovely flowers, which are actually leaf parts known by botanists as brachts, tend to wilt or fall off if exposed to temperatures below 60 degrees.
For more information about poinsettias and their history, please visit the Plant Management Network’s Poinsettia page.