Everyone loves the beautiful red leaved plants that we include as part of our Christmas decor. The poinsettia is as much a part of the Christmas greenhouse as holly or a fir-tree. But how did we come to include these plants as part of Christmas? The plant is a native of Mexico and is more a small shrub or tree than a flower. The red color is actually the leaves of the plant changing color, not petals at all. The Aztecs used the plant to make dye for fabrics and to paint their skin. The Christmas connection is said to originate in the 16th century with a young girl who wished to make a gift to Mary on Christmas Eve but was too poor to afford a gift. On the way to the church she was visited by an angel who told her to pick some weeds along the road. When she presented these at the church they were transformed into the beautiful red poinsettia plant. In the seventeenth century Franciscan monks in Central America had incorporated the plant into the holiday season and said the shape of the plant represented the star of Bethlehem and the red color the sacrifice Jesus was to make. The plant was introduced to America in the 1820s by our first minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, obviously the plant’s American namesake.
The popularity spread quickly in the US in the 20th century. From 1900 through the early 1990s a single family, the Eckes, dominated growth and spread of the plant. In the early days of color television the family sent free plants to news and other TV studios to use a set decoration on the air to increase popularity and demand for the plant. In the 90s the family met new competition as the secret method they had for growing the plants so full ( a genetic hybrid) became known to all. Since 2008 the largest producers of the plant no longer grow in the US. Today the plants may be red, pink, or white in coloring. Even brilliant yellow and silver varieties are grown. There are more than 100 different varieties of the plant. But what do you do with them from January through November?
Keeping your poinsettia plants year round is not as easy as it might seem. This is why so many people just buy new ones each fall. I still remember the gigantic plants my great, great aunt had at her house when I was growing up. She diligently cared for hers and the plants were close to 30 years old I was told. The key to keeping the plant year round is the care. In late spring it must be cut back and then in the summer placed in bright sun to grow anew. You must regular pinch back the new growth to keep it a stout plant and not grow to be tall and spindly. The real challenge is in early fall when you must keep the plant in total darkness for about 14 hours a day. Check out the great tips on care from about.com’s gardening section- Poinsettias- Keepers or compost? .