12 December 2012

Happy Poinsettia Day!

Question: What do a 14th century king, an 18th century nurseryman, a 19th century politician and a 20th century Southern California ranch have in common?

Answer: the Poinsettia

Red Euphorbia pulcherrima with its white flowered cousin, Euphorbia fulgens
A showy member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), characterized by a milky sap in its veins, the Poinsettia is currently the most popular potted plant sold in the US and Canada. The top producer of this festive flora is a ranch in California and very apropos that is, too. Without the traditional white Christmas images of snow-clad conifers and frosty snowmen, Cali had to have something for the seasons. With their bright red bracts, now hybridized to produce shades of white, pink, even orange, the Poinsettia is a natural choice for a warm climate Christmas decoration where the plants can enjoy the holiday season wearing sunglasses and sipping iced tea outside on the patio. Back east, they're strictly indoor plants. It was So Cal grower Paul Ecke Jr. who discovered a way to make the straggly Poinsettia seedlings branch resulting in fuller plants and a flourishing holiday market. It is now one of the most ubiquitous holiday decorations at Christmas time.

Native to the deciduous tropical forests of Mexico, the Poinsettia had been used ceremonially and medicinally for centuries by the Aztecs who called it Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, for residue, and xochitl, for flower). Montezuma, last king of the Aztecs, had the plants imported to ornament his mountain palace. Today in Mexico the plant is called La Flor de la Nochebuena meaning Flower of the Holy Night because of its association with Christmas. In a South American legend echoing the Little Drummer Boy, a poor girl is saddened when she has no money to buy Baby Jesus a gift. An angel appears and instructs her to gather the weeds growing wild nearby. As her tears fell on the leaves, they turned into brilliant scarlet blooms.

The plant was "discovered" in the early 19th century by Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), an American statesman, botanist, and physician. He was appointed the first Minister to Mexico in 1825. During his time there he visited the area around Taxco del Alarcon south of Mexico City, an area settled by 17th century Franciscan missionaries. It was then that the plant began to be used in Christian ceremonies and became associated with Christmas. Poinsett was captured by the fiery bracts of the Christmas flower and sent cuttings back to the US where it was propagated and sold, gaining, in 1833, the official botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning 'most beautiful'. In 1837 it was renamed to honor Poinsett's achievements in botany and politics but you know how those pesky nomenclaturists are - the name reverted back to the original Euphorbia pulcherrima but the world now knows it as Poinsettia.

Poinsett wasn't just all about politics and plants. As a physician, he also took a great interest in the sciences and was a founding member of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful, which gave birth to the Smithsonian Institute (I rather like the original name and would love to know what they then considered 'useful').

So we now know that our 14th century king was the king of the Aztecs and we're well acquainted with Poinsett and the California grower responsible for bringing the Poinsettia to the retail world, but what about the 18th century nurseryman? While researching this piece, I ran across a source that claimed John Bartram, the renown Philadelphia plant hunter and botanist, was the first in the US to sell the Poinsettia under that name. I'm not sure how this is possible since Poinsett sent his cuttings from Mexico to his estate in Charleston half a century after Bartram died. Hmmm...

Bold red bracts of Euphorbia pulcherrima with the delicate white of Euphorbia 'Diamond Heights'
Just goes to show, it pays to cross reference (and know your plant history!).

As if having a plant named for you isn't enough, there is now a day dedicated to the plant! A Resolution passed in the House of Representatives in 2002 to honor Mr. Ecke's contribution to the American economy and to mark the anniversary of Mr. Poinsett's death declared December 12 Poinsettia Day. Today, as you're doing your holiday shopping, why not pick up a Poinsettia and decorate your home with a bit of festive holiday botanical history? And if you live in the southwest, you can plant it in your garden where it can be enjoyed year round (sorry, Easties, back to the hothouse for you!).

A variety of holiday Poinsettias augmented by the silvery foliage of Begonia, rosemary, and English ivy.
A note about toxicity: contrary to popular belief, the Poinsettia is not deadly to humans. The milky sap may cause an allergic skin reaction and you sure don't want to get it in your eyes. Consuming any part of the plant will probably make you ill but it won't kill you. Nevertheless, always keep these and any houseplants away from infants and always teach children to never put houseplants in their mouths.

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