National Poinsettia Day

By Susan Littlefield

Here's one more reason for celebration this month. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day! The date marks the anniversary of the death of Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He was also an avid amateur plantsman who introduced this native Mexican flower into cultivation in the United States in 1828, sending cuttings back to his home in South Carolina. From this humble beginning, the poinsettia has gone on to become the country's most popular holiday plant, accounting for more than 85 percent of holiday plant sales.

How did a subtropical wildflower become a holiday must-have? It wouldn't be where it is today without the work of the Ecke family. Beginning with Albert Ecke, who immigrated to this county from Germany in 1900, four generations of the family have grown and promoted the poinsettia as a holiday plant. Their improvements in breeding and propagation techniques, along with a lot of skillful marketing, have kept them the dominant force in the poinsettia market for decades and made the poinsettia an enduring symbol of the Christmas season.

Today we are no longer limited to red poinsettias. (It's not the flowers that are colorful, but the modified leaves called bracts, that cup a cluster of small, yellowish true flowers.) You can now choose from poinsettias in shades of pink, orange, peach, burgundy, white, even variegated ones combining two colors. And, though it might make Christmas traditionalists shudder, even blue and purple -- sort of. Those bluish hues are actually the result of watercolors applied to white bracts; new growth won't retain that color.

Breeding advances have also made poinsettias much longer lasting once we get them home. It's not uncommon to be enjoying whatever color plant you chose months after the holiday season has gone by. All it asks is bright light, average home temperatures, no drafts, and soil that's allowed to dry out slightly before rewatering.

If you like to learn some more fun facts about America's favorite holiday flower (great conversational tidbits for those holiday get-togethers), check out the University of Illinois' Poinsettia Facts.

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