Why Poinsettias are the Official Christmas Flower

The bright red leaves of the Poinsettia help to bring on Christmas cheer and make a festive decoration all throughout the winter months. And even though they have been associated with the holidays for generations, many people don’t know the reason why.

The festive “flowers” are actually leaves, so they aren’t even flowers at all. They are native to Central America, particularly in the southern part of Mexico. And the reason why we associate them with Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend.

There was a young girl named Pepita who was said that she didn’t have a gift to leave for the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin tried to comfort her and said that Jesus would love any present from her, even the smallest one. With no money to buy a real gift, Pepita picked a bouquet of weeds that she walked past on the way to church. (in another version of the tale, an angel came to her and instructed her to pick the plants.) When she got there, she left the weeds at the bottom of the nativity scene. All of the sudden, the weeds transformed into beautiful red flowers.

From that day forward, they were known as “Flores de Noche Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.”

Poinsettias get their American name from Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who brought them to the US from Mexico in the early 1800s. They didn’t become traditional holiday decorations until the entrepreneurial Ecke family started promoting them a century later.

Paul Ecke Jr. sent free poinsettia plants to TV studios across the country, including “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials. Eventually the trend of Poinsettias caught on and now they are the most popular plants sold in the U.S. Congress even declared December 12 to be National Poinsettia Day, the anniversary of Poinsett’s death.

Fast Facts About Poinsettias

  • Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Botanically, the plant is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.
  • Many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family ooze a milky sap. Some people with latex allergies have had a skin reaction (most likely to the sap) after touching the leaves. For pets, the poinsettia sap may cause mild irritation or nausea. Probably best to keep pets away from the plant, especially puppies and kittens.
  • Poinsettias are not poisonous. A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to have any harmful effect. Plus poinsettia leaves have an awful taste. You might want to keep your pets from snacking on poinsettia leaves. Eating the leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
  • The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves).
  • Poinsettias have also been called the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, due to the red color.
  • There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available today. Poinsettias come in colors like the traditional red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled and speckled.
  • The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and does about 50% of the world-wide sales of Poinsettias.
  • n nature, Poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that were once considered weeds.
  • Poinsettias are not frost-tolerant. They will grow outdoors in temperate coastal climates, such as Southern California beach communities. In the ground, they can reach 10 feet tall.
  • The colors of the bracts are created through “photoperiodism”, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. On the other hand, once Poinsettias finish that process, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
  • The Aztecs used the Poinsettia bracts to make a reddish purple dye for fabrics, and used the sap medicinally to control fevers.
  • Montezuma, the last of the Aztec Kings, had Poinsettias delivered to him by caravan to what is now Mexico City, because Poinsettias could not be grown in the high altitude.
  • Paul Ecke Jr. is considered the father of the Poinsettia industry due to his discovery of a technique which caused seedlings to branch. This technique allowed the Poinsettia industry to flourish. The Paul Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and about 50% of the world-wide sales of Poinsettias. As of August 2012, the Ecke Ranch, which was family-owned and operated for nearly 100 years, announced that it had been acquired by the Dutch-based Agribio Group.
  • The Ecke family had a secret technique that caused every seedling to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. In 1991, a university graduate student published an article that described a method for causing Poinsettias to branch. With the secret out and available to everyone, competition flourished, especially from Europe, resulting in a decrease of Ecke’s share of the market.
  • An NCAA college football bowl game in San Diego is named the Poinsettia Bowl. The first bowl was played in December of 1952 and was created as a military services championship game, with the Western and Eastern military services champions competing against each other.