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
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