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The History of the Ever Popular Christmas Bloom: The Poinsettia

Latin: Euphorbia pulcherrima

BY KIM HUGHES – County Extension Agent – Family & Consumer Sciences –

This tropical flower in the spurge family is native to Mexico and has become the symbol of Christmas the world over. Like many of our common plants, it is largely an invention of the 20th Century even though it was first introduced to the United States in 1829.

The poinsettia carries the common name of the person introducing it to the U.S., the first ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) from Charleston, S.C. Poinsett was an important figure in American history prior to the Civil War, serving not only as ambassador, but also as senator for South Carolina and Secretary of War during the Van Buren administration. Poinsett County, Arkansas, established in 1838, is named after Joel Poinsett.

As senator, Poinsett led a group of politicians and founded an organization known as the “National Institute for the Promotion of Science.”   This group eventually led to the establishment in 1846 of the Smithsonian Institution.

The adoption of the common name “poinsettia” is due to a botanical tug-of-war that occurred between 19th Century botanists as they struggled to classify and name the plants that were coming to them from throughout the world.

After the Civil War, the poinsettia began to appear sporadically in East Coast greenhouses around the Christmas season. It was not until the turn of the century, when the Ecke family in California began growing poinsettias as a cut flower, that it really took off and became the floral symbol of Christmas. Today, the poinsettia is the largest single floricultural crop, with between 40 and 50 million pots sold each season.

The popularity of the modern poinsettia is due — in part — to its almost complete indestructibility. It should have as much light in the home as possible and be kept moist, but never standing in water. Allowing the plant to dry out will cause the leaves to drop. Poinsettias should be kept above 55 degrees.

Article By: Gerald Klingaman, retired, Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals.

If you haven’t picked up your poinsettia yet, there may still be some at the Extension Service Office.  Please help support this annual fundraiser for Polk County 4-H members to help pay for their educational activities.

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