Poinsettias: how did a plant become the international symbol of Christmas?

Published on December 12th 2018
Christmas wouldn’t be complete without two distinctive plants: the classic pine tree and a flaming red Euphorbia pulcherrima, more widely known as a Poinsettia. While Christmas trees have a long history, going back to before the advent of Christianity, Poinsettias are a relatively new addition to Western culture.

A brief history

Originally called Cuitlaxochitl, poinsettias have been associated with Christmas for centuries. In Mexico, a 16th century legend tells the story of a little girl, who found herself not being able to gift anything on the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. She decides to grab some weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the altar, which then turn into red Poinsettias.
The plant has many Christian symbolisms, but it only became widely known after Joel Robert Poinsett, first U.S. ambassador to South America, sent back a couple of samples to his hometown greenhouse. He was an avid botanist and by the end of the 1830s, the plants were referred to as Poinsettias, acknowledging his efforts to popularise it.
However, the commercialisation of the plant didn’t happen until the 20th century. Paul Ecke, a German immigrant to California, decided to start growing Poinsettias after being inspired by the crops of local Mexican communities.
Soon after this, his son took over the company and it expanded heavily in the 1960s. The family were responsible for selling over 70% of Poinsettias in the U.S. and 50% worldwide in the 1990s. This was partly due to clever marketing - Paul Ecke Jr made sure the flowers were present in print magazines, Christmas TV programmes and flower shows.

The future

Today, the iconic red plants are the most popular plants in the US. In 2013 they accounted for almost a quarter of all potted plants sold, and their popularity is growing. The Ecke farm ended up selling its Poinsettia operations in 2012 after their secret grafting method was discovered and published in an academic journal.
Their farms, now in the hands of the German grower Dümmen Orange, still provide a large proportion of the world's Poinsettias, including the ones we buy in the UK. This year, however, your Christmas plant is most probably not one of their products. It was reported earlier this year that their cuttings were infected by whiteflies just before they were sent over to the UK. In order to meet the demand for the plant, producers needed to look for alternative sources. These growers had to take early cuttings, explaining why the plants you see in the supermarkets might be smaller than in previous years.
This year also saw Poinsettias being marketed towards younger audiences for the first time. The 12-week campaign is currently focusing on the different coloured versions of the plant, highlighting white Poinsettias as the new Christmas favourite. Stars of Europe, the marketing initiative of European Poinsettia breeders, hopes to engage the Millennial generation so that the plant will remain a Christmas favourite for generations to come.
Free download for your phone or tablet
Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Lots to see

Follow and read AlanGardenMaster’s articles as he develops his new one-acre plot. PimlicoDan shows city gardening in a whole new light, or follow DaisyDays on her adventures in the allotment and as a professional gardener. Just a few of the many personalities you’ll meet in our app. Free download for your phone or tablet.
Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play