by Russell T. Nagata
Special To West Hawaii Today
If it weren’t for the highly colored leaves, the poinsettia would be best known by some other name. Its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, literally means “most beautiful Euphorbia.” The true flowers of the poinsettia are called cyathia and are the green and white beads tipped with yellow and red in the center of the flowers. The showy parts of the plants are actually modified leaves called bracts.
The poinsettia grows wild in southern Mexico and naturally blooms under the shorter daylight hours of the fall season. The Aztec name for this plant was cuetlaxochitl and was use in many ways. A purplish dye was extracted from the colorful bracts to be used in textiles and cosmetics and the latex sap was used to treat fevers.
The plant was introduced into the United States by Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825-29. Although trained in the medical profession, Poinsett’s real love was botany. On a trip to the Taxco area in 1828, he collected the brilliant red flowering plants and grew them at his South Carolina farm. He distributed the plants to friends, who distributed it to their friends and so on. It’s easy to see how the name originated.
A legend from Mexico on the origins of the poinsettia is as follows: Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, had no gift to present to the Christ Child at the Christmas Eve service and was truly saddened. As she walked to the church, Pedro, her cousin, suggested even the most humble gift, if given with love, would be acceptable. In desperation, Pepita gathered some common weeds along the roadside and made a small bouquet. Although embarrassed by her gift and near tears, she presented her gift at the nativity scene. Suddenly, she felt her spirit lifted as the bouquet of weeds burst into a brilliant red bloom, a Christmas miracle witnessed by all in the church. From that day, the flowers were known as Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night.
However, the real reason the poinsettia is such an important part of the Christmas holiday season is the for generations of work of the Ecke Ranch farm of California. Albert Ecke arrived in California in 1900 from Germany intending to travel to Fiji to open a health spa but stayed. He and his son, Paul, ventured into agriculture and were fascinated by the poinsettia that grew wild throughout Southern California. Because of its seasonal flowering during the holiday season, the idea was to develop it to become the official holiday flower.
In Paul’s quest to make it the official holiday flower, he traveled the country to promote the poinsettia to nurseries and greenhouse growers, teaching them to propagate and raise poinsettias. In the early 1960s, Ecke Ranch introduced a new cultivar of poinsettia it bred that did exceptionally well as a potted plant, securing its place in Christmas tradition.
Paul Jr., building on his father’s success, worked tirelessly to keep the poinsettia in the public eye. Through media placement on television and in magazines, he made the poinsettia a necessary part of the holiday season. Today, Paul III continues to position the company for the 21st century by introducing new cultivars of poinsettias. Worldwide, more than 90 percent of all poinsettias got their start from Ecke Ranch. More than 80 percent of the U.S. market originated with plants developed by Ecke Ranch.
To get the best out of your poinsettia, select plants with little or no yellow pollen showing on the flowers. Plants that have released their pollen may soon begin dropping their colorful bracts. Poinsettias do not like temperature extremes and wide fluctuations. Don’t leave them in your hot car. After taking them home, keep them in a well-lit window, but out of direct sunlight. Six hours or more of light is best. Water poinsettias when soil media is dry. Do not let poinsettia pots sit in water, as they will easily rot, however, prolonged dry conditions will cause the colorful bracts to drop.
The poinsettia is not a poisonous plant, although many people consider it to be. Based on animal studies at Ohio State University, it was concluded that if a 50-pound child ate 500 bracts, no long-term negative impact would occur with just short-term impacts as an upset stomach or vomiting. For those who are allergic to latex, contact with the sap could result in skin irritation.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has a good publication on how to maintain your poinsettia from this season to next year, “Care of Potted Poinsettias,” Publication OF-44. For more information on this and other gardening topics, visit ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit a Cooperative Extension Service office.
Nagata is the Hawaii County administrator of the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.