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Modern Poinsettias have a Colorful Past

wild poinsettia
Wild Poinsettia


For many people, Christmas decorating is not complete without a beautiful poinsettia from Behnke Nurseries. Over the years, Behnke’s has literally sold millions of poinsettias, but, where did “wild” poinsettias come from in the first place?   To trace the origin of poinsettias we have to look to our southern neighbors, home of so many economically important plants.

The poinsettia is native to tropical Mexico and Central America, where it grows straight and tall to ten feet. Poinsettias were grown by the Aztecs, who used them medicinally to reduce fever and to make a dye from the red flower bracts. The flowers were also used to symbolize purity. Following  the invasion by the Spanish Conquistadors and the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion, many Indian traditions and ceremonies became intermingled with the “new ways.” During the 17th century, the Franciscans established a mission near Taxco. Because of its color and holiday blooming time, the poinsettia was used for the Fiesta de Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession.

Following Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, the United States sent Joel Roberts Poinsett to Mexico as our first ambassador. In 1828 Poinsett sent some poinsettias to his home in Greenville, SC, where he had greenhouses. He had the plants propagated and distributed to friends. Poinsett, much more popular here than he was in Mexico, is honored with the celebration of National Poinsettia Day on December 12, the day of his death.

In 1833, the poinsettia was officially described and named Euphorbia pulcherrima by a German taxonomist named Willd. The Euphorbia genus is a large one, with worldwide representation. Its members include many popular perennials, many unpopular weeds, and many of the interesting cactus-like succulents found in Africa.

The poinsettia remained a plant of modest obscurity until it was noticed by Albert Ecke, a nurseryman in California. In 1906 he moved  to Hollywood, and began growing field-grown cut flowers, including poinsettias. By 1909, Ecke was specializing in poinsettias, and The Ecke Poinsettia Ranch moved to Encinitas, CA.   From 1923 to 1963 all significant poinsettia varieties grown in the United States came  from  Ecke.  This year the Ecke family sold the remainder of the Encinitas land and the company was acquired by a Dutch horticulture firm.

Unlike today’s well-branched plants, the early varieties were grown as single-stemmed individual plants with one flower-perhaps three plants in an 8 inch diameter pot. Also, the early varieties were very sensitive to changes in humidity and light conditions. They responded by dropping their leaves and flower bracts. Florists compensated for the no-leaf look by wrapping the pots and stems in foil to hide the bare stems–this is where foiled pots originated.

Recent History

Alfred Millard, Behnke’s President, recalls the early 1960?s when Behnke’s first started growing poinsettias. “We used to go out to the nursery and cut evergreen branches and put them into the poinsettia pots to hide the bare stems. In those days, poinsettias were not sold until the week before Christmas because they would not hold up for very long in the house. It was more like a flower arrangement than a potted plant.”

Hank Doong,  Behnke’s Controller and former annuals department manager remembers: “When I started in the early `70?s,” Hank said, “we were still trying new ways of keeping the plants short. This was before chemical growth retardants. One thing we tried was tying the stems in a knot-the stems on the older varieties were a lot more flexible than those of today’s. I don’t recall that it worked very well…”

In 1963, Mikkelsen Greenhouses introduced `Paul Mikkelsen’. It had good foliage retention, and was the first long-lasting variety as well as the first cultivar that grew well as a potted plant. In 1968 Ecke introduced the `Eckespoint C-1?; and in the same year `Annette Hegg’ was introduced from Norway-both breakthroughs in that they made attractive branched plants. Since that time, many new and exciting cultivars have appeared on the market, and we now are able to produce stunning, full plants, with beautifully colored flowers and deep green leaves. With reasonable care, the poinsettia will be attractive in the home for weeks or months instead of days.

Over the last twenty years there has been an explosion of new varieties in new, exciting colors, including burgundy, burnt orange, and lemon yellow.  In addition, it was found that white poinsettias would hold up to being painted and glittered, which opened up even more color possibilities for home decoration.  Red remains the favorite color for gifting, but people often buy the more exotic colors for their home décor.

Poinsettia Care

With minimal care, your poinsettia should look nice for at least a month. First, if it is in a paper or plastic sleeve, take that off immediately.  Ethylene gas, given off naturally by the poinsettia (and other things like ripening apples) build up in the air within the wrapper and will cause the leaves and petals to look droopy. (One of the reasons that poinsettias in box stores/grocery stores sometimes look sort of sad is because they have been in a box or sleeve for too long.)

Bright light is best.  They will hold their leaves longer in bright light.  Remember that in greenhouses they are grown in full sun under glass or plastic.  They will hold up in poor light  but over time, the older leaves will turn yellow and drop off.  Usually they start to look ratty about the time you are ready to put them out in the compost pile anyway.

Watering: The soil should be allowed to dry out some before you water—lift the pot.  If the plant is heavy, you do not need water.  Wait until the pot is lighter—not so light that the soil shrinks away from the side of the pot—but light.  You may only need to water once every 4 or 5 days in the house.  I recommend taking them out of the foil pot cover (the foil cover, not out of the pot itself), taking them  to the sink, watering  them, letting them drain for a few minutes, and then placing the pot cover back over the pot.  Much less likely to overwater this way.  Overwatering is the easiest way to kill a poinsettia—a couple of inches of water in the pot cover is the kiss of death.

Keep it warm: poinsettias are tropical, they don’t like temperatures below the low 60’s Fahrenheit.

by Larry Hurley,  Perennials Specialist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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