For years I have thought of poinsettias as a holiday cliché. Every bank, department store and building lobby displays them by the hundreds because they are a safe, appropriate choice for décor that is fast, festive and nonsectarian. Poinsettias are relatively inexpensive and offer lots of splashy color, but have the good taste to drop their bright red bracts after the holidays are over. In a world that offers ample reasons for guilt, poinsettias apparently inspire very little. Most people willingly consign them to the compost or the curbside sometime between New Years and Valentine’s Day.
Last week I began thinking about poinsettias in a different way. My neighbor has been away for awhile, but now that she’s back, it is a pleasure to see the golden light shining from her kitchen window in the evenings. Three wooden Christmas trees are sitting in that window now, flanked by groups of red double poinsettias. The total effect is akin to that of seeing cardinals in the snow–cheerful and festive; not a cliché at all. That kind of cheer appeals to me.
Poinsettias owe their current status as a holiday staple to one nineteenth century amateur horticulturist and one twentieth century family of horticultural professionals. The amateur was Joel Poinsett (1779-1851), a South Carolina native who was also a politician and a diplomat. As the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett was apparently impressed by the wild poinsettias that he saw growing near Taxco. He may or may not have known that the Aztecs called it the plant “cuetlaxochitl”, and used the red bracts to make dyes. The white sap was extracted from the stems and used as a medicine, reportedly to treat fevers.
Like many plant lovers, Mr. Poinsett could not bear to keep a promising specimen to himself. He sent plants back to his South Carolina estate to be propagated in his greenhouse. Later on he provided offspring plants to botanically minded friends, including noted early American botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia. The plant was assigned a botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “beautiful euphorbia”.
Many of us have various species of Euphorbia, which is more commonly known by the unattractive name “spurge”, in our gardens. In the last few years, Euphorbia polychroma or cushion spurge has made great leaps in popularity. It is a low-growing, ground-covering plant with bracts that are yellow tending towards chartreuse in the spring and summer, then red in the fall. Euphorbias are often grown as foliage plants, and the shorter varieties are useful in the same way that Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla molis) is useful; as dependable ornamental ground covers or edging plants.
The poinsettia is a holiday staple thanks to the Ecke family of Encinitas, California. Over the years the Eckes have combined horticultural proficiency with marketing wizardry to produce a product so popular that during December there is at least one poinsettias in every occupied structure in America. The Ecke’s have been in California since 1906, when a German immigrant, Albert Ecke settled there, and decided to go into commercial agriculture.
Eventually Ecke became interested in poinsettias, and passed along the interest to his son, Paul. Paul Ecke grew poinsettias in his California fields, sold them to greenhouse owners all over the United States, and encouraged those greenhouse owners to market the plants at holiday time. By the time Paul Ecke, Jr. joined the family firm, advances in poinsettia breeding had produced plants that could be grown in pots in greenhouses rather than in fields.
The Eckes built lots of greenhouses, and worked with public relations people to raise poinsettia visibility by supplying them to television studios and other media outlets. Once Americans saw poinsettias behind Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Perry Como and other cultural icons, they wanted the bright blooms in their homes, and poinsettias took off.
Over the years, the gangly Mexican plants have become shorter, sturdier and a lot more floriferous. They even come in a host of colors and forms, but red is still the most popular. The Ecke family, which created the poinsettia wave, is still riding it today, with Paul Ecke IV running the business.
I am not sure that I like the pink or white poinsettia varieties, which look to me like tepid versions of their brighter siblings. To my way of thinking, the colored bracts look best in red. Some of the smaller double red cultivars appear almost rose-like. Double or single, all poinsettias look especially good when they are massed.
So the poinsettia may just be the perfect plant to buy this holiday season. It is a native North American, discovered by someone in the service of his country, and popularized in “the American century” through the skillful use of that great American idea-marketing. By surrounding an arrangement of red and white poinsettias with blue ribbons or Christmas balls or some other blue decorative items, you will have a perfect patriotic holiday display. But even without all the patriotic overtones, a few plants brightening up a dark corner may seem more than ordinarily warm and cheerful. This is a year when many cliches have turned back into comforting traditions.