December 12th is Poinsettia Day! The poinsettia is well known for its red and green foliage and is frequently used in Christmas displays. It derives its common English name from Joel Roberts Poinsettia, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825.
The poinsettia’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico. Legend tells of a girl who was too poor to provide a gift for Jesus’ birthday. An angel inspired the child to gather weeds by the roadside and place them on the church alter. Crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. Starting in the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the poinsettia in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
The American poinsettia industry traces its roots to third-generation German immigrant Paul Ecke Jr., who sent free plants to television stations to display on air between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He also appeared on programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to promote the plant. Until the 1990s, the Ecke family has a virtual monopoly on poinsettias, due to technology that made their plants much more attractive than those of competitors. The family produced a fuller, more compact plant by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. In contrast, poinsettias left to grow on their own will take an open, more weedy look. In the 1990s, a university discovered this method and published it, allowing competitors to flourish. However, the Ecke family still serves about 50% of the worldwide market.
If you’d like to learn more about poinsettias, the library has the wonderful Tommy De Paola children’s book, The Legend of the Poinsettia. The poinsettia’s toxicity to humans is a myth, but they should be kept away from hungry dogs and cats!