SLOAN: The history of the poinsettia
Editor’s Note: for the next four weeks Editor Bob Sloan’s column will focus on the traditional plants and greenery associated with the holidays. It’s a funny thing. Look for a poinsettia from late January through early November and you’ll be hard pressed to find one. By the fourth week of November, however, they’re everywhere. All around the world, poinsettias hold a special place in holiday traditions and celebrations. Here’s some interesting history on the Christmas flower found on www.ambius.com: The origin of the Poinsettia dates back to the 14th century Mexico. The plant had a long history of medicinal use. It was said that its milky white sap, called latex, could be used to reduce fever symptoms. The plant was so highly prized in Aztec culture that “Cuetlaxochitl,” as the plant was known, was also used to create red and purple dyes for clothing and textiles. It is said that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was so captivated by the plant that he would have caravans of poinsettias shipped to the capital city of Teotihuacan because the plants could not grow at the high altitude. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Cuetlaxochitl, now an established decorative plant in Mexican tradition, began its journey into Christmas traditions. This part of the journey began in the small town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico where Franciscan monks began using the shrub in their Nativity processions. Coincidentally, it is also around this time that the Mexican legend of Pepita and the “Flowers of the Holy Night” began, forever tying the red and green shrub to Christmas folklore. As legend has it, a young girl named Pepita was traveling to her village to visit the Nativity scene at the chapel. Pepita did not have enough money to buy a present to give the baby Jesus at the services, so she gathered a bundle of roadside weeds and formed a bouquet. She was upset that she didn’t have more to offer, but she was reminded by her cousin that “even the most humble gift, given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” Upon entering the chapel and presenting her bouquet to the Nativity Jesus, the bouquet of roadside weeds miraculously turned into a bouquet of beautiful red flowers that the locals knew as Cuetlaxochitl. Early on, the poinsettia’s association with Christmas was almost entirely confined to small Mexican towns and their local folklore. It remained in relative obscurity for almost two hundred years before a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett introduced it to the United States. This introduction forever changed the way we decorate for the holidays. Poinsett was a man of many talents. He was not only the first person to introduce the poinsettia to the U.S., but he was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He was also a skilled and passionate botanist who co-founded the institution that we now call the Smithsonian Institute. In the winter of 1828, Poinsett took a diplomatic trip to Mexico on behalf of President John Quincy Adams. He visited the Taxco area where he wandered the beautiful countryside and became enchanted by the brilliant red leaves of an unfamiliar plant. Poinsett kept a greenhouse on his property in South Carolina - Charleston, to be specific - and began shipping the blooms back to his home. There, he studied and carefully cultivated the plants. It wasn’t long before he began sharing the plants among his friends and colleagues around Christmas time. This was when the upper leaves of the shrub would turn red. The reputation of the enchanting Christmas plants spread and soon a Pennsylvania nurseryman by the name of Robert Buist began to cultivate poinsettias. He played a large role in helping to establish the plant’s Christmas reputation. It wasn’t until about 1836 that the plant formally attained its popular name of “Poinsettia” after the man who first brought the plant to the U.S. and ignited a holiday tradition that continues to this day. In the early 1900s, the poinsettia began to gain popularity. Paul Ecke Sr. developed the first poinsettia plants that could be grown indoors in grow pots. He began selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, Ca. In 1923, he founded the Ecke Ranch that today provides nearly 70 percent of the plants that are bought and sold in the country. Today, the poinsettia is the most popular plant sold during the holidays and the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. Within a six-week period leading up to Christmas, there are over 70 million poinsettias sold and nearly $250 million in poinsettia sales accounted for. In July of 2002, the United States Congress named Dec.12 as National Poinsettia Day. Next week: The Christmas Tree Contact Editor Bob Sloan at editor@florence newsjournal.com.