History of the Poinsettia

Plant Health Progress – Plant Health Reviews – 14 September 2000
Accession DOI:10.1094/PHP-2000-0914-01-RV
Copyright © 2000 Plant Health Progress

Ing-Ming Lee, USDA, ARS, PSI, Molecular Plant Pathology Laboratory, BARC-West, Beltsville, Maryland

History of poinsettia cultivars
The poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima Wild, is a tropical plant indigenous to Mesoamerica and tropical Mexico. It was cultivated by the Aztecs of Mexico, in the area near present-day Taxco, long before Christianity came to the Western Hemisphere. The brilliant ‘flower’ was beloved by natives and their kings as a symbol of purity. The flower was also processed by the Aztecs to make dye and the latex was used for a medicine against fever. Because poinsettias typically bloom during the Christmas holiday season, a group of Franciscan priests who were settled near Taxco in the 17th century began to use the brilliant flowers in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. This is the first known incidence of poinsettias being used for holiday celebrations.

Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsette while he served as the first U. S. Ambassador to Mexico. Poinsette, a renowned botanist, had several plants sent to his home in Greenville, South Carolina, which he later distributed to various botanical gardens and his horticultural friends. Robert Buist, a nurseryman, first sold the plant as Euphorbia pulcherrima. However, the name poinsettia has become the accepted name in English speaking countries. Today, poinsettias are one of the most important floricultural crops in the United States. Total U.S. poinsettia production was valued at $325 million in 1997 .

Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and Mesoamerica and, unlike today’s commercial cultivars, they grow into straight and tall trees. Often these trees can reach heights up to 10 feet tall. Through selection and breeding by growers, many cultivars have been developed in the United States and Europe. Two morphotypes of poinsettia cultivars are grown commercially: one is a restricted-branching morphotype characterized by strong apical dominance and few axillary shoots and ‘flowers’ (actually modified leaves called bracts); the other is a free-branching morphotype characterized by weak apical dominance and many axillary shoots and ‘flowers’. In the early 1900s most poinsettia plants were sold as fresh cut flowers, notably by the Ecke family in Southern California. The modern era of poinsettia culture began in 1923 with the introduction of the seedling cultivar selected and developed mainly by Paul Ecke of Encinitas, California. This cultivar was shorter in stature and produced a more attractive branching plant. In 1945, a selection called “Improved Albert Ecke” was introduced; this plant branched more freely and produced a greater percentage of perfect bracts. In 1967, a self-branching cultivar called Annette Hegg was introduced by Thormod Hegg of Lier, Norway. Poinsettias entered a new era when more free-branching cultivars with improved lasting foliage retention characteristics were introduced in the United States as well as in Europe. These free-branching cultivars, which were ideal for developing multiflowered potted plants, comprise the majority of commercial cultivars propagated today.  (http://www.oglevee.com)