Thursday, November 26, 2020
Nov. 26, 2020

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Gardening with Allen: Poinsettia has Mexican roots

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Could you explain how the poinsettia became the most popular Christmas flower?

The natural color of poinsettias is a bright red color. Together with green leaves it becomes the perfect combination for Christmas.

The poinsettia is named after the man who first brought the plant to the United States. Joel Roberts Poinsett was appointed by President John Quincy Adams as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. Because of his interest in botany he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. In Mexico the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that grows up to 10 feet tall. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.

The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist Carl Ludwig Willdenow. He was dazzled by its flower color and assigned the name pulcherrima which means “very beautiful.”

John Bartram, a nurseryman from Pennsylvania was the first to sell potted plants under its scientific name.

After the plant became popular in the United States, William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, named the poinsettia after Joel Roberts Poinsett.

In the early 1900s, the Ecke family started growing the poinsettia for landscape plants and cut flowers in Southern California. This family name has become synonymous with the poinsettia because they have developed the majority of the named varieties, including other colors besides red.

The Ecke family and other developers of new varieties license propagators to produce rooted and unrooted cuttings that are sold to greenhouse growers throughout the United States and other countries. These greenhouse growers plant the cuttings into pots starting in August.

The flowering of the poinsettia is initiated by day length. The shortening days of winter trigger the development of flowers. The natural time for poinsettias to bloom is mid-December but the public wants to buy plants in November. To accomplish this, growers pull black cloth over plants in mid-afternoon starting in October to artificially shorten the natural day length to what it would be in December. This causes plants to bloom in mid-November so they can be delivered to stores before Thanksgiving.

Plant breeders have been able to develop many other colors over the last 30 years. Some of these other colors are grown for sale at other times of the year in Europe and other countries.

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