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Saturday, December 21, 2013
By Julie Rahm
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a culturally and commercially important plant species of the spurge family. The plant is indigenous to Mexico and Central America. Have you guessed correctly? The plant derives its common name from Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett was the first United States Minister to Mexico. He introduced the plant into the United States in the year 1825.
Poinsettias are actually shrubs or small trees. As you may know, the plant bears dark green leaves that can measure from two to six inches in length. The colored leaves, most often flaming red, can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled. The colored leaves are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors. The colors in the leaves are created through photoperiodism. They require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change color.
The association of poinsettias with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico. Legend tells of a girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. Later in the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus. Enter Albert Ecke.
Albert Ecke emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1900. There he opened a dairy and orchard. He became intrigued by the plant and sold them from street stands. His son, Paul Ecke developed a grafting technique. But, it was the third generation of Eckes, Paul Ecke, Jr. who was responsible for advancing the association between the plant and Christmas. Besides changing the market from mature plants shipped by rail to cuttings sent by air, he sent free plants to television stations for them to display on air from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He also appeared on television programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope's Christmas specials to promote the plants. Until the 1990s, the Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technique that made their plants much more attractive. The Eckes produced a fuller, more compact plant by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, somewhat weedy look. But, the Eckes' technique made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant. In the 1990s, a university researcher discovered and published the method previously known only to the Eckes. As a result, competitors using low-cost labor in Latin America have entered the business. Still, the Ecke’s poinsettias serve about 70-percent of the domestic market and 50-percent of the worldwide market. Now you know. May the poinsettias make you smile this season. And, may your Christmas be merry and bright!