Poinsettia History

Many plants are holiday symbols, but few say Christmas as well as the poinsettia. Did you ever wonder why this came to be?

If you've done much traveling, you've probably noticed that poinsettias grow naturally as large shrubs in tropical locations. The history of how this tropical plant came to the US and became a holiday symbol is quite interesting.

The plant's common name came from Joel Roberts Poinsett. Mr. Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico being appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. At the time of his appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war. He was responsible for talks with Mexico that led to the purchase of Texas.

Because of his interest in botany, Mr. Poinsett introduced the American Elm into Mexico. During his stay in Mexico, he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and as an ambassador, he will always be remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.

The poinsettia became popular as a Christmas flower by the Ecke family. In the early 1900s, the Ecke family of southern California grew poinsettias outdoors for use as landscape plants and as a cut flower. Eventually the family grew poinsettias in greenhouses and today they are recognized as the leading producer of poinsettias in the United States. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 80 percent of poinsettias in the United States for the wholesale market. Ninety per cent of all the flowering poinsettias in the world got their start at the Paul Ecke Ranch.

In its native Mexico, poinsettias are a perennial flowering shrub that can grow to ten feet tall. The showy colored part of poinsettias that most people think are the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The flowers of the poinsettia are the little yellow balls in the center of the colorful bracts.

A very common misconception about poinsettias is that they are poisonous. This is absolutely not true. Poinsettias are not poisonous. In fact, a study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child who ate 500 bracts might have a slight tummy ache. Still, some people do have skin sensitivity to the plant's milky sap.

To see a beautiful display of poinsettias, go to Luthy Botanical Gardens in Peoria this holiday season. There you'll find a poinsettia show by day and poinsettias by candlelight with live holiday music by night. Go to http://www.peoriaparks.org/luthy-botanical-garden/ for more information.