Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, brightened up our home during the holidays but now mine look a little tired. Dropping their colorful bracts — the leaves many people mistakenly refer to as their flowers, they are now undistinguished green blobs. I imagine you may have the same plants in your house and may also be feeling pangs of guilt about throwing them away.
We can thank the “Late Night” show host Johnny Carson for our collective horticultural guilt. I’ll get to him in a moment — Carson played a big role in launching their careers as a holiday fixture.
The poinsettias’ American story starts with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, John Poinsett who served in President James Madison’s administration. In 1828, Poinsett found a beguiling red plant during his travels in Mexico and brought cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. While Poinsett had a long and distinguished career as a statesman, diplomat, and scientist he will be remembered as the man who introduced the poinsettia plant to America.
The plant Poinsett brought home is one of a handful of winter bloomers. When the plant senses autumn’s shorter days it begins to form flowers. To attract pollinating insects, it releases chemicals that change the color of the leaves surrounding its flowers; botanists describe this response to the amount of day light as photoperiodism. The colorful bracts help attract pollinators to its small yellow flowers.
Noticing Poinsett’s winter-blooming plant, growers began to experiment in an effort to improve it for the American consumer. At the turn of the 20th century German immigrant Paul Ecke began to market them as Christmas cut flowers. He went on to experiment with grafting and cross-breeding techniques, developing plants that had more intense reds, held their color longer and had a fuller shape. In warm climates poinsettias can be grown outside as landscape plants but Ecke, seeing the potential to brighten our homes at Christmas with poinsettias, marketed them as potted plants. By the 1920s, Ecke had pushed the poinsettia to the top spot in the potted houseplant category.
Things dramatically changed in 1960 when Ecke’s son, Paul Ecke Jr., donated hundreds of poinsettias to decorate the set of “Late Night with Johnny Carson” show. The show’s producers resisted. Because they needed their Christmas set to look good for two weeks of shooting and the hot studio lights wilted most plants, they didn’t want to create a maintenance issue watering and replacing shabby plants. Ecke’s poinsettias performed well in tough conditions and millions of viewers were introduced to the poinsettia. Calls came in to the studio seeking out the vibrant red plant and a star was born. From there Ecke was able to get his plants featured in leading magazines such as “Home and Garden” and “Ladies Home Journal” and on sets of other popular Christmas shows including Bob Hope and Andy Williams.
The focused work of the Ecke family created a national holiday tradition that has spread around the globe. Last year, about 80 million poinsettias were sold between November and December; North Carolina is the second largest producer of poinsettias, producing most of the poinsettias purchased on the east coast.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.