National Poinsettia Day
December 12, 2011
“Did you know that the poinsettia has a special day all its own? “
By an Act of Congress, December 12 was set aside as National Poinsettia Day. The date marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who is credited with introducing the native Mexican plant to the United States.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (March 2, 1779 – December 12, 1851) was a physician, botanist and American statesman. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives, the first United States Minister to Mexico (the United States did not appoint ambassadors until 1896), a U.S. Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren and a cofounder of National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (a predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution), as well as the eponym of Poinsett County, Arkansas, the historic Poinsett Bridge in Greenville County, South Carolina, Poinsett State Park in Sumter County, SC, and the poinsettia, a popular Christmas flower.
First Minister to Mexico
He simultaneously served as a special envoy to Mexico from 1822 to 1823 and was appointed the first American minister to Mexico in 1825, and became embroiled in the country’s political turmoil until his recall in 1830. It was during this time that he visited the area of southern Mexico called Taxco del Alarcon were he found what was later to become known in the United States as the poinsettia, in Mexico is called “Flor de Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve flower). Poinsett, an avid amateur botanist, sent samples of the plant home to the States and by 1836 the plant was most widely known as the “poinsettia.”
(The Aztecs referred to the winter-blooming plant as cuetlaxochitl;
its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima or “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”)
Euphorbia pulcherrima, commonly known as poinsettia or noche buena, is a species of flowering plant indigenous to Mexico and Central America. The name “poinsettia” is after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the US in 1828. It is also called the Atatürk flower.
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 0.6 to 4 m (2 to 16 ft). The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 7 to 16 cm (3 to 6 inches) in length. The colored bracts—which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled—are actually leaves. The colors come from photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness for 12 hours at a time to change color. At the same time, the plants need a lot of light during the day for the brightest color.
Because of their groupings and colors, laymen often think the bracts are the flower petals of the plant. In fact, the flowers are grouped within the small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and they are called cyathia.
The species is native to Mexico. It is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. Reports of E. pulcherrima growing in the wild in Nicaragua and Costa Rica have yet to be confirmed by botanists.
* There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia available.
American Poinsettia Monopoly
ECKE FAMILY: http://www.ecke.com/
Until the 1990s, the Ecke family of Encinitas, California, had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technological secret that made it difficult for others to compete. The Ecke family’s key to producing more desirable poinsettias was to create a fuller, more compact plant, by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, somewhat weedy look. The Eckes’ technique made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant.
Albert Ecke had emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1900, opening a dairy and orchard in the Eagle Rock area. He became intrigued by the plant and sold them from street stands. His son, Paul Ecke, developed the grafting technique, but it was the third generation of Eckes, Paul Ecke, Jr., that really was responsible for advancing the association between the plant and the winter holidays. Besides changing the market from mature plants shipped by rail to cuttings sent by air, he sent free plants to television stations for them to display on air from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He also appeared on television programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to promote the plants.
However, in the 1990s, a university researcher discovered the method and published it, opening the door for competitors to flourish, particularly in Latin America where the cost of labor is far lower. The Ecke family, now led by Paul Ecke III, no longer grows any on farms in the U.S., but as of 2008, they still control about 70% of the domestic market and 50% of the worldwide market.
- In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl=residue, and xochitl=flower) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.”
- The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication.
- Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve.
- In Spain it is known as “Flor de Pascua“, meaning Easter Flower.
- In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as “Crown of the Andes“.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.
From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants 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.
In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.
Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in homes, churches, offices, and elsewhere across North America. They are available in large numbers from grocery, drug, and hardware stores.
Big Spring, Texas is well known for its poinsettias as the “lighted poinsettia capital“. When the Comanche Trail Festival of Lights first began the dam at the big spring held four huge poinsettias made of rebar welded together in the shape of a poinsettia flower. Each flower was made up of 5 leaves. The leaves were decorated with red Christmas lights. The four poinsettia flowers were an awesome sight to see entering Big Spring from the south.
Each year more flowers were added to the dam and inside the park until Comanche Trail Park has by 2006 added seven poinsettias, making a total of eleven lighted flowers on the dam and countless flowers inside the park, making Comanche Trail Park the Christmas Poinsettia capital.