Enjoy the history behind the plant that has become synonomous with Christmas

Published 11:15 pm Saturday, December 24, 2016

Poinsettias are synonymous with the Christmas season and are by far the best selling of all Christmas plants. They add bright color and a feeling of festivity to the décor of any home or office during the holidays. If you treat them right, they can continue to brighten those long winter days long after other holiday decorations have been removed and packed up for next year.
Their vibrant color comes from modified leaves or bracts that upstage their true flowers, which are the small yellow bead-like forms found at the center of the brightly hued bracts.

These tropical plants, native to Mexico, captivated Joel Robert Poinsett in 1828 when he was America’s first ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett, who dabbled in botany, sent cuttings home to South Carolina where they were grown in his greenhouses and given as gifts to friends and botanical gardens. The plant eventually was named in his honor.

Poinsettias may never have become known to us common folks if the son of a German immigrant living in Southern California at the turn of the 20th century had not noticed the commercial potential of this woody wild plant which was transformed into a brilliant display of color as the days shortened every December. Paul Ecke began growing fields of them, which he would sell at roadside stands in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

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His son Paul Junior joined his company after the war, and Ecke Ranch became the world’s largest commercial producer of poinsettias. Production changed from fields to greenhouses in 1963, where they had more control over these light sensitive plants. By 1965, their hybridizations resulted in a plant that could retain its colorful bracts for more than a week.

During their experiments, they discovered a process to increase branching that allowed for multiple blooms to be present on one plant. Over the years they bred plants in a range of colors from the traditional red to pink, white, salmon, maroon, bi-colored, speckled and marbled. They shipped out blooming plants to commercial customers for holiday trade as well as selling cuttings during the summer months to nurseries around the globe that they could grow in their own greenhouses for local distribution. Red is still the traditional favorite and accounts for 75 percent of what they sell.

Paul Ecke Jr. was a marketing genius in addition to being an innovative horticulturist. He gave away hundreds of blooming poinsettias to magazines for them to include in their big Christmas articles in the late 60’s as well as to popular television programs for their holiday sets such as the Tonight Show, Dinah Shore and the Bob Hope Christmas Specials. He wanted to associate poinsettias with holiday decor, and it definitely worked. Ecke Ranch ships out over 65 million plants annually.

Poinsettias can last for months if given proper care. They need bright indirect light. Windows facing south, east or west are better than one facing north. Their leaves should never touch a cold windowsill nor should they be positioned where a cold draft of air from a doorway will hit them. Too much or too little water usually spells disaster. The soil should be checked every few days and they should be allowed to drain completely whenever water is added.

They should never sit in water and a hole poked in the bottom of foil wrappers or removal will facilitate drainage. The ideal temperature is 68-72 degrees during the day and 60-65 degrees at night, similar to what they experienced during greenhouse production. No fertilize is necessary while they are in bloom.

Poinsettias are not poisonous as previous believed; however, consumption by humans or pets is definitely not recommended. Minor GI tract irritation can result if pets happen to consume a few leaves according to the ASPCA Poison Control Center. Contact with the milky sap found inside of the stems can cause skin irritation to humans, so hand washing is advised when handling them.
Training Session Coming Up

Another Master Gardening training session is in the works for 2017. An interest meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. at the Warren County Extension Office.

If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardner, plan to attend. Call 601-636-5442 for more information.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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