It’s that time of year again when the whole world seems to go red. Love them or loathe them poinsettias dominate the Christmas flower market, and because of that they are are the most economically important potted plant world-wide. Incidentally although less than 1 person in 5 buys one in Britain, in Germany the figure is almost 1 in 2.: a frightening thought if you’re not that fond of them!
The scarlet monstrosity [maybe you can see where I stand on the like/loathe spectrum] comes from Mexico and its surrounds, and is a member of the vast euphorbia family. It has the scientific name euphorbia pulcherrima, (‘very pretty/beautiful) given in 1833. So why is it always called Poinsettia and what’s it got to do with Christmas? Read on and find out more than you could ever possibly have wanted to know about them….
The Aztecs called poinsettias Cuetlaxochitl which apparently means “residue flower” or, more romantically, “flower of leather petals” because its ability to thrive on very poor dry soils. Unlike today’s commercial cultivars, the wild species can grow into quite substantial plants, often up to 10-12 feet tall. Their whitish sap was used to control fevers and the colourful bracts could be made a reddish dye as well as cosmetics.
After the Spanish conquest missionaries baptised the plant estrella de navidad, partly because of its time of ‘flowering’ – in fact the red parts aren’t petals but bracts (or modified leaves) which surround the otherwise insignificant flowers. Apparently it also reminded them not only of the shape of the star of Bethlehem but the crimson colouring of Jesus’s blood at the crucifixtion. Somewhat surprisingly I have found no evidence of attempts to introduce the plant to Europe until the 19thc.
But why is called Poinsettia? Its a long story but to cut it short: ‘Poinsettia’ is in honour of Joel Roberts Poinsett the first United States Minsiter to Mexico, and later a congressman and Secretary of State for War. He was also involved in the setting up of what was to become the Smithsonian Institution. Poinsett might have been a prominent diplomat and politician, but his real love was botany. So, when he arrived in Mexico in 1825 he naturally began investigating the local flora, despite the fact that the country was in the middle of civil war.
In 1828 Poinsett found a large shrub with large red ‘flowers’ which he liked the look of and sent cuttings back to his garden in South Carolina. From there they were propagated and shared with fellow plant enthusiasts.
The shrub was quickly introduced into cultivation and the commercial trade by the famous Bartram’s Nursery in Philadelphia in 1829. Then run by John Bartram’s granddaughter, Anne, and her husband, Robert Carr, the nursery had gone from strength to strength and was rapidly expanding its range, with nearly 4,000 species being raised there, and with greenhouse space for 10,000 potted plants. In June that year they exhibited “a new Euphorbia with bright scarlet bracteas or floral leaves, presented to the Bartram Collection by Mr. Poinsett, United States Minister to Mexico” at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society show.
A specimen was also sent to another of Poinsett’s friends, Robert Buist, who later wrote that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.” Buist was a gardener, and recent immigrant from Scotland. He had trained at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens where he met fellow trainee, James McNab.
In 1834 McNab visited America and renewed his freindship with Buist, and was given a plant of the new euphorbia to take home. McNab, who was go on to be Director of the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, was also something of an artist & going to publish a description of it in one of the botancial magazines but it was “flowering… Too imperfectly to allow of it being figured”.
Nevertheless in 1836 Dr Graham, the Professor of Botany at Edinburgh wrote a long description in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal noting poinsettia pulcherrima as a synonym for euphorbia pulcherrima. He also notes that it had been imported to several other British collections from Buist’s garden. And that he had “dedicated it, if not to its original discoverer, at least to one at first bought it into cultivation and into general notice amongst botanists.”
In 1836 euphorbia pulcherrima also appeared in Benjamin Maund’s & John Stevens Henslow’s new magazine, The Botanist, which makes it clear that the more usual red-bracted plant was already being cultivated in several places including Liverpool Botanic Gardens, and Pope’s nursery in Handsworth.
The Botanist also carried the first description and illustration of the white bracted variety, which had “been found about 400 miles from Mexico city by William Bates who sent it to Charles Tayleure of Toxteth Park, Liverpool”.
The full account of the white variant from The Botanist can be found at: https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753002719463#page/n309/mode/2up
and the description of the red at: https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753002719463#page/n335/mode/2up
The following year, 1837, euphorbia pulcherrima made its appearance in Paxton’s Magazine of Botany as Poinsettia Pulcherrima.or Showy Poinsettia, where it merited a double page spread and was described as a “truly beautiful and very desirable stove plant… and nothing can exceed the ornamental effect they create.”
The same year, Floral Cabinet included “this new and splendid ornament of the stove” with a “drawing made from a plant in the collection of George Barker, Esq., of Springfield, nr Birmingham.”
Hybridising and crossing of the species with others, quickly led to many variations of colour, the number, shape and size of the bracts, the general size of plant, as well as times to colour up. For example a variety called rosea-carminata was featured in The floral Magazine of 1873 and exhibited by William Bull’s Chelsea nursery. It was the magazine reported “remarkable not merely for the novelty of its colour, but also for the larger number of leaves in the bracts, exhibiting a tendency to duplication.” I confess that I might be tempted still to ask ‘what’s the difference?” But rosea-carminata was nothing compared with what was to come… avert your eyes if you don’t wish to be bedazzled…
In 1902 a German immigrant to California, Paul Ecke established a nursery at Hollywood, and they found bright scarlet weeds growing wild on the hillside. These were, of course, euphorbia pulcherrima. Within a few years Ecke and his family were growing and hybridising poinsettias for use in the garden and as pot plants. They had a good eye for the market and sent free plants to the White House, well-loved TV shows and women’s magazines. These ended being seen by millions – who then went out to mimic the effect at home.
By 2012 they had grown to become the world’s leading producer with over 70% of the USA market alone, and had branched out with nusreries in Spain and Denmark as well which gave them 50% of the global market
Paul Ecke III, until recently the head of the business, was interviewed about the company’s history when he agreed to a takeover by Dutch horicultural conglomerate Agribo in 2012. Now they, in turn have been taken over by a private equity group and are part of the third largest horticultural business in the world.
“For my grandfather, and his father a little bit, this was an outdoor business. They grew poinsettias —it started in Hollywood and they moved here [to Encenita, California] in 1923 and, until 1963, that’s what they did. In the 1960s, my dad did three things: he transformed the business from outdoors to indoors. He started marketing the poinsettia, and he started our breeding program. Instead of selling big, dormant stock plants he sold cuttings. This was able to happen because after World War II the air freight business started up. Then in the mid 1990’s, we started getting lots of competition, mostly from Europe, and then we went offshore, to Guatemala. My grandfather started it outdoors, my father took it indoors, and I took it offshore. Every one of the moves was necessary at the time.”
According to The American Phytopathological Society modern poinsettia culture began with the introduction of the seedling cultivar ‘Oak Leaf’ grown originally in Jersey City, New Jersey, by a Mrs. Enteman in 1923. From then until the early 1960s, all of the principal cultivars of commercial importance were selections or sports from this original ‘Oak Leaf’ seedling.
By the 1950s breeding programmes were initiated at several horticultural institutions worldwide aimed at providing the flower trade with the first longer-lasting cultivar of commercial importance. In particular this meant cultivars which had very sturdy upright stems and which retained their bracts and foliage for as long as possible. The result was ‘Paul Mikkelson’ but it was quickly joined by a range of Norwegian [yes, Norwegian!] varieties which were multi-flowered and able to produce from 5-8 blooms from a single pinching out of the leading shoot, so saving considerable labour.
Today there are over 100 poinsettia cultivars grown commercially, with one cultivar, Eckespoint Freedom representing over 50% of the market for red-bracted plants worldwide. But in order to stay competitive nurseries continue to hybridize, select and innovate.
Ecke continues to grow 10,000 to 15,000 new seedlings each year and then eliminates all but about 20 after the first year of tests. Eventually, those survivors are reduced to 5‐10 new varieties of which only one or two might stand a chance of becoming commercial. This ruthless process of selection and culling has led to varieties with marbled pink markings on otherwise off-white bracts and another with pink flecks on the traditional red background. 2010 saw the claim to have read “the only true orange” and 2012 the first purple-bracted variety…here are just a few. BUT you have been warned!
I can clearly no longer call it just a scarlet monstrosity…. luckily the the plant has many more lovable names. The Italians call it Stella di Natale but it’s etoile d’amour (‘star of love’) in France, noche buena (‘Christmas Eve’) in Mexico, and la corona de los Andes (‘crown of the Andes’) for Peruvians and Chileans. In Argentina, I am told, it is commonly called estrella federal, since in the 19th cnetury red was the colour of the party of the dictator Rosas, not inappropriate for a man who had no qualms about shedding other people´s blood. Whatever you want to call it there is no escaping its ‘festive’ presence …so maybe I should join the Victorians and most of the rest of the world and try to enjoy its subtle charms! Happy Holidays!