As Christmas is quickly approaching, it’s the perfect time to talk about poinsettias. Let’s celebrate this beautiful plant by learning facts about poinsettias, and discovering more about the history, origin and symbolism and meaning of the poinsettia.
During this time of the year, poinsettias are all around! They’re featured on Christmas cards, painted on ornaments, displayed on dinner tables, and found adorning front porches along with other festive decorations.
Each of the plants associated with Christmas hold a significance to the holiday deeply rooted in history, and poinsettias are no different.
This poinsettia is so much more than a wintertime decoration, this plant has a long history, a special religious meaning, and has become a symbol of the Christmas holiday.
Don’t forget to check out Santa’s list to see if you’ve been naughty or nice this year.
What is a poinsettia?
You may be surprised to know that poinsettias are not actually flowers! They are a small shrub, but over time have been trained to grow as the potted plants we so often see during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The red parts of the poinsettia that appear to be flower petals are actually leaves (called bracts). They form a circle around a cluster of small yellow flowers on the plant.
The botanical name for Poinsettias is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which literally means “the most beautiful Euphorbia”.
Poinsettias are also one of the two birth flowers of December (the other is Narcissus). Now that you know the poinsettia isn’t actually a flower, it’s interesting to think that poinsettias are one of the “flowers” that represent this month!
Facts about poinsettias – what is the poinsettia origin?
Poinsettias are native to Central America, specifically a region in Southern Mexico called Taxco de Alcaron.
We have poinsettias in the United States because of a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was a botanist and the first United States Minister to Mexico.
In 1828 when he saw the beautiful red plant growing in Mexico, he began shipping some back to his home in South Carolina where he could grow and study them in his greenhouse.
The plant eventually inherited its common name “poinsettia” to honor Joel Roberts Poinsett.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, the Smithsonian and poinsettias
In addition to being an avid botanist, Joel Roberts Poinsett was very passionate about science. In fact, he is one of the reasons the Smithsonian Institute exists as a museum.
The benefactor of the Smithsonian, James Smithson left his estate of $508,318 (which today is the equivalent of about $15 million) to create “under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”.
Creating this institution was a big task and there wasn’t a clear idea how it would work. At the time, Joel Roberts Poinsett was the US Secretary of War, and was in charge of the United States Exploring Expedition.
A man passionate about science, Poinsett insisted that scientists be included in these global travels. They brought back artifacts to display in Washington, DC (in what is now part of the Smithsonian).
After creating these displays, he urged that James Smithson’s money be spent to create a national museum.
While the Smithsonian is so much more than a museum, Joel Roberts Poinsett is the man we have to thank for the part of the Smithsonian that is a museum!
If you make it out to the Smithsonian Gardens for Christmas this year, make sure to look at all of the beautiful poinsettias! You’ll know all the history behind them, and their connection to the museum.
Add to your knowledge of poinsettias by checking out these facts about poinsettias below. Some may surprise you!
- Poinsettias aren’t always red! There are over 100 different varieties of poinsettias that come in many colors. They also come in pink, white, orange, salmon, burgundy, speckled, and marbled.
- Poinsettias are native to Mexico.
- In their native environment, poinsettias grow like a shrub and can reach heights of up to 15ft tall.
- Congress passed a bill in 2002 making December 12, National Poinsettia Day (which is also the anniversary of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s death).
- Even thought National Poinsettia Day is observed in the United States, December 12 is also celebrated in Mexico the celebration of Lady Guadalupe. Poinsettias are often used during this day.
- Poinsettias were brought from Mexico to the United States through way of South Carolina by Joel Roberts Poinsett.
- The beautiful red part of the poinsettia isn’t actually a flower! What appear to be flower petals are actually leaves (called bracts). They form a circle around a cluster of small yellow flowers on the plant.
- Aztec people loved poinsettia plants because they produced a bright red dye.
Want to learn more about other plants that are associated with the Christmas holiday? Check out this post featuring 27 Christmas plants.
Poinsettia history & Ecke Ranch
You can’t talk about poinsettias without mentioning the name “Paul Ecke”. Paul Eckes Sr. and Paul Ecke Jr. had a massive impact on the poinsettia market.
Nicknamed “Mr. Poinsettia”, Paul Ecke Sr. first started selling poinsettias in roadside stands. He later established Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California. He developed a secret grafting technique for the plants.
Ecke Ranch is now the largest producers of poinsettias in the world. In fact, it provides 80% of the poinsettias in the United States, and about 50% of the world’s supply of poinsettias!
His son, Paul Ecke Jr. impacted the history of poinsettias by helping the horticultural industry push for floral and nursery crops to be included in the US Department of Agriculture’s research budget.
Why are poinsettias so popular at Christmas?
In addition to pushing for research funding, Paul Ecke Jr., revolutionized how poinsettias were produced and sold. He gave free plants to talk shows, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which they featured on air.
Paul Ecke Jr. also went on talk shows to promote the plant. This marketing made them the best selling potted plant, not only in the United States, but also in Canada too.
Poinsettias are popular at Christmas for two reasons: being heavily advertised on television during this time, and also because of the Mexican legend about the origin of the poinsettia.
Facts about poinsettias
Did you enjoy learning those facts about poinsettias? Here are some more poinsettia facts for you to enjoy!
- Poinsettias are also called “Flores de la Noche Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night”. This comes from the poinsettia story featuring a little girl named Pepita based off a Mexican legend.
- There is religious symbolism in the poinsettia flower – the star shape represents the Star of Bethlehem, the red leaves represent the blood of Christ, and white leaves represent the purity of Christ.
- The botanical name for Poinsettias is Euphorbia Pulcherrima, which literally means “the most beautiful Euphorbia”.
- Many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family ooze a milky white sap which can cause skin irritations for people who are allergic to latex.
- The birth flowers of December are Narcissus and Poinsettias.
- Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the United States.
- 80% of the poinsettias sold in the United States come from Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California.
- In the United States, California produces the most Poinsettias followed by North Carolina in second place, and then by Texas in third place.
Want to add poinsettias decor to your holiday table this year? Check out this guide to making a poinsettia candy cane vase.
Poinsettia story – Flower of the Holy Night
As mentioned earlier, the poinsettia is a symbol of Christmas because of a Mexican legend telling a poinsettia story set during the holiday.
The legend says that there once was a little girl from Mexico named Pepita who wanted to see the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. She was poor, and had no gift to give him.
She felt sad, but her cousin, Pedro told her that the baby Jesus would appreciate any present given with love. As they were walking, she picked a bunch of weeds growing by the side of the road and fashioned them into a bouquet.
Though she was embarrassed by her small gift, as she walked to the nativity scene, she kept thinking of what her cousin said.
When she placed the bouquet down, it changed into beautiful red poinsettias. Everyone watching was convinced they had seen a miracle.
From that day forward, the poinsettias were called “Flores de la Noche Buena”, or “Flowers of the Holy Night”.
Poinsettias are not the only plants with religious symbolism. Easter lilies and dogwood trees are linked to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and because of this, they are two of the symbols of Easter. Palm branches also hold meaning on Easter.
Poinsettia meaning & symbolism
As you can see from the poinsettia story, poinsettias have long held religious significance. You might be interested to know that each aspect of the poinsettia flower holds religious symbolism and has a different meaning.
The shape of the plant looks like a star. It is said to resemble the Star of Bethlehem, which led the three wise men to Jesus.
Poinsettias come in over 100 different varieties, and the poinsettia meaning changes depending on the color of the plant. Red poinsettias symbolize the blood of Christ. White poinsettias symbolize Christ’s purity.
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Facts about poinsettias – Learn about National Poinsettia Day
On July 22, 2002 Congress agreed that December 12 would become National Poinsettia Day. This day honors both of the men who made this beautiful flower so popular in the United States.
Check out our post on National Poinsettia Day, including fun and festive ways to celebrate the day!
The bill passed by Congress, specifically honors Paul Ecke Jr.’s contribution to the development of the poinsettia industry, and the ways in which he positively impacted the lives of others around him.
December 12, 1851 is the day Joel Roberts Poinsett died. Choosing the anniversary of Poinsett’s death for National Poinsettia Day serves as a reminder of his contribution to making poinsettias available to the United States.
More plant themed national days
If you enjoyed learning these facts about poinsettias, and discovering National Poinsettia Day, you’ll be excited to know there are actually several national days of the year dedicated to plants.
Below are some of our favorite plant themed national days:
- National Carnation Day – What do US presidents and carnations have in common? Find out in this post!
- Rose Day – Check out some facts about roses, and learn about this rose themed national day in February.
- National Garden Meditation Day – If you love gardens, and meditation, this national day is for you. It also has instructions to create your own meditation garden.
- National Orchid Day – Check out the gallery of orchid photos on this post to celebrate orchids on their very own national day.
- Carve a Pumpkin Day – Honor this national day by learning some interesting facts about pumpkins, and don’t forget to carve pumpkins of your own!
- National Johnny Appleseed Day – Learn what this day is all about, and how to celebrate it.
If you love trivia and want to learn more facts about all kinds of things, make sure you head to our “fun facts” section.
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Looking for more inspiration for the holidays? Check out our Christmas quotes video on YouTube.
About the author
Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.
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