No matter what Christmas decorations I use, it just wouldn’t be a real holiday season without a vivid red and green poinsettia. My devotion to this plant never wavers. Even in some years when there is no Christmas tree in my house, there is always at least one poinsettia. One year, I even bought a five foot tall poinsettia, strung small white lights on it and used as a tree substitute.
The ubiquitous poinsettia even gets its own National Day each December so I can’t be the only fanatic. The plant, however, hasn’t always had such a pervasive presence. Coming in colors ranging from white to pink, mottled, and deepest scarlet, poinsettias were not found on every table, mantel or shelf until the late 20th century. Even so, it has had a long history as an important plant which might make it seem like it has been used in homes forever. The ancient Aztecs used this plant native to Central America as a source for dyes and as a medicine to control fevers.
The unique and decorative nature of the poinsettia was quickly noticed by the Spanish colonial officials. They used it for Christmas decorations and, when brought to Spain, it was called the “Easter Flower” and became a feature of a second holiday. In Mexico, it remains largely known as the Christmas Eve Flower despite its other use in Spain.
Of course, we all know that the red “flowers” are really just colored leaves or brachts. Outside certain climate areas, they are also hard to grow – the Aztec emperor Montezuma had to import them to the high-lands around Tenochtitlan [Mexico City]. It was the Ecke family of Southern California who finally mastered the process of growing them in large numbers while improving on nature in the early twentieth century. By the 1960s, when I was in college, the poinsettia was everywhere. In fact, more than 70 million plants are sold each year, almost entirely in November and December, making it the number one potted, flowering plant sold in the United States.
As a historian, one final “plus” for this popular plant is its name. It is based on that of Robert Joel Poinsett, a wealthy, globe-trotting South Carolinian who was our nation’s first ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. He also served as a congressman, Secretary of War and was a co-founder of the organization which became the Smithsonian Institution. He is better known, however, for bringing an exotic plant with briliantly colored leaves back from his years in Mexico. He would surely be astounded at its amazing popularity in the 21st century.