Musings » Pointsettias: Myth & Legend
Waters Edge Press 2000
Try this one for size: an 8 foot tall plant from Southern Mexico waltzes into South Carolina in 1828, moves on to Philadelphia, from there to Edinburgh and finally to Berlin where it is given its formal name: Euphorbia pulcherrima (the most beautiful Euphorbia) in 1834 but wait, there is more. The flowers are displayed at the 1829 Pennsylvania Horticultural Society show, familiar to us as the Philadelphia Flower Show and the public goes wild. If anything said “Christmas” it was the handsome plant with bright green leaves and vivid scarlet bracts. A tradition was born instantaneously. No, I did not make this up.
Up until this point it was either called flore de nochebuena, flower of the Holy Night, or Cuetlaxochitl, the ancient Nahua name. Desperate nurserymen, who knew a good thing when they saw it, needed an easier name for the public. They turned to W. H. Prescott, the author of the classic work, The Conquest of Mexico. He suggested calling the plant “Poinsettia” after the man who discovered the gorgeous flowers and sent it home to Charleston. It is almost unheard of that a plant should have its formal name first and a common one later. It is usually the other way around.
Christine Anderson and Terry Tischer tell this fascinating story in their compact little book suitably bound in scarlet covers and illustrated with dozens of photographs of everything to do with the poinsettia. One of the most charming aspects of their imagery is the use of post cards from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Post cards were not invented until 1870 and came into their own by 1900. The possibility of adorning the cards with brightly colored pictures led to many being sold with poinsettias as well as roses and other popular plants.
Another use of poinsettia was in interior design and even clothing. Robert Larson introduced a line of silk ties with a poinsettia theme. Women’s hats were obvious targets and carried many versions of the flower.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, 1779 to 1851, was a very well educated Southern gentleman of Huguenot descent. He served as secretary of war and was opposed to the “nullification” movement in his state, a prelude to secession. Poinsett believed the Union was more important than local grievances. When Mexico seceded from Spain in 1822 he was appointed the first ever American minister to now independent Mexico. While travelling in Southern Mexico one December he came across these flowers. The churches in Taxco were decorated with armfuls of them. In 1828 Poinsett is said to have sent “flores de nochebuena” back to to Charleston.
In their enthusiasm Anderson and Tischer get a few basic facts wrong but this does not mar the charm and beauty of their book. The German botanist they quote is Karl Willdenow, not “Wilenow”. The authors say that Willdenow noticed the plant when it grew through a crack in the greenhouse wall. According to Walter Lack, the current director of the Berlin Botanical Garden that was highly unlikely. (I have since learned that almost everything attributed to Poinsett and Prescott in this connection is also myth but no matter.)
A very large part of the story is due to the efforts of one family firm, the Ecke Ranch. They started their business in 1906. There was a time when all poinsettias sold in the United States came from their greenhouses in Southern California. That monolithic grip has been loosened a little in the past few years but they remain a very large player indeed. Paul Ecke senior was the one who tamed the plant, dwarfing it and making it suitable for sale in a manageable sized pot.
In 1960 the Eckes began to breed new varieties by deliberately cross-pollinating one plant with another. This led to the wonderful series of poinsettias in many colors and styles. Red remains the dominant color but pink, yellow and now purple are available for anyone who wishes to coordinate the plants with their decor.
This book is intended for the general public and while it would be better if everything were correct, many people will get a lot of enjoyment out of reading it .