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Lawn and Garden

The History and Magic of the Traditional Christmas Flower

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12/01/2011 - Every Year I write about how to take care of your Poinsettias at Christmas time. This year I thought I would tell you a little about where they come from and why they are special to Christmas. As I said last month poinsettias are native to Mexico and South America.

In their native areas they grow a lot like lilac bushes do here. They get very big and they can become a little rangy if they are not trimmed. When you get them as a potted plant here they are very young. Most potted poinsettias at Christmas are about 4-5 months old. At our greenhouse we grow them using a slower schedule, so ours are about 7 months old when you get them. It is a lot like slow cooking food, growing them slower and at lower temperatures makes for a better plant.

If you have ever seen a poinsettia that is over a year old, you have noticed that their stems are a lot harder and woody. Since they come from hot dry climates they are very well suited to our homes in the winter. The Poinsettia's proper name is "Euphorbia pulcherrima" and it was first imported into the U.S. by Joel Robert Poinsett in the early 1800's. He was the equivalent of the United States ambassador to Mexico at the time. If you have some time, look this man up online or in a book. He traveled the world and did a lot of interesting things. Although Mr. Poinsett was responsible for bringing the Poinsettia to the states, it was the Ecke family who made it the holiday crop it is today.

The poinsettia you buy at our greenhouse is much different than the wild variety. That is because the Ecke family has dedicated multiple generations to breeding and improving poinsettias. Just about every color of poinsettia grown today originated in an Ecke facility. They are still constantly improving the plant for your home. Our greenhouse is one of many greenhouses that receive test varieties to grow from the Ecke Company each year. This gives us a chance to preview advancements in the plant before they become available for production. It is pretty neat to get to grow a new variety a full year before it even gets a name. Although as I said they are being tested, so many of them will never make it into mainstream production. A good example is a pumpkin orange color that we tested a couple years ago, it was a very nice plant, but its color just wasn't good for Christmas.

The Ecke family and Mr. Poinsett have both made significant contributions to the poinsettia's popularity, but the most important contribution that made the Poinsettia the Christmas flower was made by a little girl in Mexico. This little girl was walking down a dusty road with her brother on her way to Christmas mass. She was feeling pretty bad because she knew they were heading to church to celebrate Jesus's birth and she had no present to give him. She thought to herself, what kind of person would she be if she showed up to Jesus's celebration without a gift? As they were walking she saw some dried up weeds growing on the side of the road, it was very dry in the winter where she lived so there were no flowers blooming at the time. Although the weeds were not very pretty she picked them anyway and made a little bouquet to take to church. She figured it was the thought that mattered. As she walked up to the altar at church she hung her head low because she knew the weeds she brought were not as nice as the flowers other people had laid out. She was so embarrassed she thought about stuffing them in her pocket, but she set them down anyway. As soon as the weeds touched the floor at the base of the altar they burst out with brilliant red blooms, larger than any of the other flowers in the room! From that day on the little girl's flowers were always the centerpiece of the Christmas mass and now we call them poinsettias.

Even now as an adult I like my holidays best with a little magic, so I wanted to share this story with you. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a good New Year.

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