The poinsettia originally hails from MEXICO. The leaves that crown the end of each poinsettia stalk undergo a seasonal color change in December, turning from green to red. As Christianity spread across Mexico during the colonial era, this color change turned poinsettias into a popular Christmas decoration. The Mexicans call the plant flor de la Nochebuena, or “Christmas Eve flower.”
A Mexican folktale explains this name. Many years ago on Christmas Eve a poor girl sought a GIFT to offer to the Christ child. She realized, however, that she owned nothing beautiful enough to give the infant. She began to cry, but eventually her desire to pay tribute to the child overcame her shame. She plucked a branch of an ordinary green plant that grew beside the road and humbly brought it to the manger. As she laid it beside the crib the leaves of the plant burst into a brilliant red in recognition of the child’s humility and JESUS’ pleasure with the gift.
The poinsettia’s popularity in the United States can be traced back to the initial interest of one man, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett. Appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Poinsett also maintained an interest in botany. While stationed in Mexico in 1825 he noticed a plant whose ordinary green leaves turned a brilliant red in December. Intrigued by these tongues of fire he sent samples home to South Carolina where he maintained a greenhouse. Other horticulturists soon adopted the plant. Botanists named the plant Euphorbia pulcher-rima, but the public called it “poinsettia” in honor of the man who first imported it to the United States. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century New York shopkeepers were offering poinsettias at Christmas time. By the twentieth century Americans had fully adopted the plant as a CHRISTMAS SYMBOL. The current popularity of the poinsettia as a Christmas decoration can be measured in numbers. In 2000 Americans bought more than 65 million of these potted plants.
The leaves of the poinsettia are very sensitive to light. During the darkest weeks of the year the leaves at the end of each stalk react to the shortage of sunlight by changing color. Although people commonly refer to the poinsettia’s scarlet blooms as “flowers,” in fact only the yellow buds at their centers are flowers. The red halos that surround them are composed of a special kind of leaf known as a bract.
Americans seem to favor red poinsettias as Christmas decorations, but other less well known varieties of the plant sport leaves that change from green to white, yellow, or pink. A number of these varieties were developed by the Ecke family. In the early part of this century Paul Ecke, a flower farmer located near Los Angeles, California, played a major role in developing new varieties of poinsettias and championing these hardier and more attractive plants as Christmas decorations. His cross-country promotional tours eventually paid off. Not only has the poinsettia become a Christmas symbol, but also the Ecke family farm, now located in Encinitas, California, continues to supply a large percentage of America’s demand for the potted plants and the cuttings from which they grow (see also URBAN LEGENDS).