November and December always bring with them the joyous holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but who can remember either of these joyous days without the splash of color and statement that the Yuletide poinsettia makes?
Commonly known as Zack Wood or the Noche Buena, the poinsettia was first discovered by an American, Joel Roberts Poinsett, in Mexico in 1825. At the time, Mr. Roberts was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Visiting during a Christmas nativity ritual, the ambassador – quite a horticulturist in his own right – became intrigued by the brilliant scarlet flowers that the local priest had used to adorn the participants and the scene.
He subsequently imported many of these plants back to his own home state of South Carolina and Euphorbia pulcherrima became well-known as the poinsettia in his honor. In the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl, which means “flower that grows in residues or soil.” It is also known in both Chile and Peru as the “Crown of the Andes.”
This particular plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where a legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The young child was then inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them at the foot of the church altar.
Crimson flowers were then said to sprout from the weeds and they became beautiful poinsettias. One hundred years later, the Franciscan friars of Mexico included these plants in their Christmas celebrations. The blood red color of the flower symbolized the sacrifice of Jesus during his crucifixion and its five-petal star shape represented the Star of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth.
An urban legend of 1919 professed that the poinsettia plant and especially the leaves, which are so attractive to young children during the holidays, are poisonous. It was said that an army officer’s 2-year-old daughter had eaten some parts of the leaves and had died as a result.
To dispel the myth, the American Flower Society enlisted Ohio State University to prove otherwise. The researchers fed rats enormous amounts of poinsettia, equal to feeding a 50-pound child 30 poinsettia leaves. The results were positive for the rats, none died. And so the myth was dispelled.
To be careful though, common sense dictates that some people may have allergic reactions to the Euphorbia sap and vapor and must be careful around the plant if so inclined. Euphorbia sap has also been known to be antipyretic. It can reduce fever and have the same pain relief as ibuprofen and aspirin. Most Euphorbias are also known as spurges in that they act as a powerful laxative and have been used to help purge individuals with bowel symptoms.
Because these plants are photoperiodic, they require darkness for 12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row in order to change color and become the brilliant plants we all love. At the same time, poinsettias need a lot of light during the day light hours, which also helps them to achieve their best color.
In nature, poinsettias are native to Mexico found in a deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations and can reach a height of 10 feet or so, doing well in warmer climates. Temperatures below 50 degrees will kill these plants overnight and hotter temperatures over 70 degrees will shorten their lifespan. However, the fullness of these plants was not achieved until the Ecke family created a grafting technique in the 20th century.
Albert Ecke emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1900 and opened a dairy and orchard in Eagle Rock, selling these plants from street stands. His son, Paul Ecke here in Encinitas, soon developed the grafting technique that combined two varieties of poinsettia together, getting each individual seedling to branch. This was the key to producing fuller more desirable poinsettias that will naturally take on an open, somewhat weedy, look if left alone. Finally, it was the third generation of Eckes, Paul Ecke, Jr., who advanced the association of poinsettias with Christmas and used the media and air freight to create a dynasty.