Digging Deeper Vol. 17

South Carolinian Introduces Poinsettias To U.S.

As you browse through the bounty of choices of locally-grown poinsettias at Head-Lee Nursery, know that a South Carolinian discovered this treasured “Christmas Flower” in Mexico in the early 1800s, and was solely responsible for sending it back to friends living here and thus creating an industry which has grown to become the most popular selling pot plant in the U.S. and Canada.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, born March 2, 1779, in Charleston, SC, was a well-known statesman, physician and botanist, whom we continue to honor as the one who introduced the “poinsettia” to the U.S.  He served as a South Carolina 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 co-founder of National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (a predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution).

Poinsett’s heritage lives on here in our state, including the historic Poinsett Bridge in Greenville County and Poinsett State Park in Sumter County, as well as the poinsettia.  While serving as Minister to Mexico beginning in 1825, he visited the area of southern Mexico called Taxco del Alarcon and discovered what was later to become known as the poinsettia, which in Mexico is called “Flor de Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve flower). (The Aztecs referred to the winter-blooming plant as cuetlaxochitl; its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima or “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”) Poinsett, an avid amateur botanist, sent samples of the plant home to South Carolina, and by 1836 the plant was most widely known as the “poinsettia.”

Poinsettia Christmas Tradition Begins in SC

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 often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves. The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change color.  At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.  The flowers of the poinsettia are unassuming and do not attract pollinators. They are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and are called cyathia.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico, where it is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forests 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.

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 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”.

Ecke Family Secret Leads To Modern Poinsettia

Today, poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in homes, churches, offices, and elsewhere across North America, and here in the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.  The Ecke family in California is responsible for the “evolution” of the poinsettia, from that “wild “ form that Poinsett introduced into South Carolina, to the myriad of different varieties that we see today.

Albert Ecke 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., who was responsible for advancing the association between the plant and Christmas.  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.

Until the 1990s, the Ecke family, who had moved their operation to Encinitas, California in 1923, had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technological secret that made their plants much more attractive.  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.

In the 1990s, a university researcher discovered the method previously known only to the Eckes and published it, allowing competitors to flourish, particularly those using low-cost labor in Latin America.  The Ecke family’s business, now led by Paul Ecke III, decided to stop producing plants in the U.S., but as of 2008, they still serve about 70% of the domestic market and 50% of the worldwide market.

In areas outside its natural environment, it is commonly grown as an indoor plant where it prefers good morning sun, then shade in the hotter part of the day.  However, it is widely grown and very popular in subtropical climates such as Australia.  The poinsettia has also been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s.  It was brought from Mexico during the Egyptian campaign.  It is called “Bent El Consul”, “the consul’s daughter”, referring to Joel Poinsett.

When watering it is important to allow the plant to drain out any excess water.  Having a poinsettia sit in water can do harm to the plant as it prefers moist soil to direct water.

In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic.  This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.  While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild.  Its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.  It is also mildly irritating to the skin or stomach and may sometimes cause diarrhea and vomiting if eaten. 

Rosemary Also Popular, Especially At Christmas

Since ancient times (500 BC) Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been one of the most utilized herbals. This Mediterranean area native remains prominent in our gardens not only as an evergreen, but also as an aromatic, winter-flowering accent plant.  This multifunctional plant is a “kitchen garden” favorite because so many types of cuisine call for it as a special seasoning.  Its tremendous popularity spans the entire year, but December, and especially Christmas time is particularly dominant because of its legends associated with Christ and the fact that it is just now beginning to come into flower.

Christmas legend has it that when Mary and Joseph fled Egypt, they stopped for the night and took shelter underneath a large rosemary shrub. Before lying down to sleep, Mary draped her blue shawl across the rosemary branches, and when she awakened the next morning, the normally white flowers had been changed to blue. While there are white and pink-flowered forms found in today’s gardens, shades of blue still dominate.

Another Christmas story says that in return for providing shelter for Mary and Joseph, the rosemary would never again grow to more than six feet tall or live for more than some 30 years. Six feet was estimated to be Christ’s height, and 30-33 years old was his approximate age at the time of his death.

Of course, rosemary is still a mainstay as a decorative element in our current celebration of Christmas. Brought inside it has an enticing fragrance and it is a savory culinary seasoning for so many holiday dishes. Its versatility, durability and wonderful aroma are demonstrated in the offerings of rosemary topiary trees and wreaths throughout the holiday season.

By Guest Author Randy Peele

As has always been the case with my garden writings, I would like very much for all of you to interact with me in “Digging Deeper.”  Recommended topics, critiques, opinions, questions, etc. all are encouraged and welcomed, and I look forward to hearing from you by e-mail at email@headleenursery.com.