Poinsettias from the Aztecs to today. The Sacramento Bee – 30 Nov 2019 – BY KURT SNIBBE

During the mass, as the Star of Bethlehem passed overhead, the leaves turned from green to bright red. The poinsettia, formally a symbol of Aztec sacrifice, became a symbol of the blood of Christ and quickly associated itself with the Christmas season.

What we call the poinsettia is native to Mexico and was called Cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs. The Aztecs used its sap to cure fever and its red leaves to make dye.

The Aztec legend is that the plants were a gift from the gods as a reminder of the sacrifice made to create the universe, and were to be repaid by human sacrifice.

RED FOR SACRIFICE

After Mexico was conquered by the Spanish, the plants got a new name, “la flor de Nochebuena,” or Holy Night flower. Instead of indicating human sacrifice of the Aztecs, the blood-red color symbolized Christ’s sacrifice and is associated with the Christmas season. In Mexico, poinsettias in the wild are much different than those we buy in stores today. Some plants can grow more than 15 feet tall.

In some parts of Europe, it is customary to give poinsettias as gifts on Christmas Eve. The starshaped clusters of the plant are said to resemble the Star of Bethlehem.

COINCIDENTAL TWIST

In Mexico, poinsettias are displayed around Dia de la Virgen, Dec. 12. In the U.S., Poinsettia Day is also Dec. 12. The date is in remembrance of Joel Poinsett, who died Dec. 12, 1851. Poinsett was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in 1828, as well as a botanist who collected plant species. He is credited with introducing the plant to the U.S. and successfully growing it in his greenhouse in South Carolina. The plant was named after him by a botanical society in Europe.

CALIFORNIA ROOTS

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, about 34 million poinsettia plants were sold in the U.S. It wasn’t always this way. The popularity of the poinsettia is mostly due to the Ecke family from California. The Eckes developed a way to breed plants that produced many longlasting blooms and were easy to transport.

In the early 1900s, Paul Ecke Sr. began selling poinsettias from a roadside stand in Hollywood. His son, Paul Ecke Jr., improved their breeding and got them on the sets of popular TV shows such as the “Tonight Show” and Bob Hope Christmas specials.

For a while, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas produced about 90% of the poinsettias sold in the world.

WORD GOT OUT

In 1990, a report by botanists at the University of Minnesota revealed how the grafting process used by the Ecke family yielded the compact, socalled “free-branching” poinsettias. After this revelation, competition began to stiffen, and in 2012 the Ecke family sold its company to a Dutch agricultural operation, citing global competition and consolidation.

There are hundreds of types of poinsettias. Along with the traditional red, poinsettias can be pink, white or yellow.

NEED FOR DARKNESS

The Penn State botany department states that poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning that waning daylight triggers the flowers. Despite the term “short-day,” research has shown that it is really the length of night, or darkness, that is important in the blooming cycle.

In order to flower for the winter holiday season, a poinsettia needs 12-14 hours of darkness each day, beginning around Oct. 1. Even a short light interruption during the dark period can reset the clock and prevent the plant from blooming.

U.S. HORTICULTURE

In 2018, potted, flowering plants for indoor or patio uses were valued at $877 million, up 8% from 2015. California accounts for 34% of the value in this category, and Florida accounts for 17 percent. The value of potted poinsettias totaled $149 million, up 6% from 2015.