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How Poinsettia Became a Traditional Christmas Gift

When we say “Christmas plant,” what comes to mind? Likely a Poinsettia! Have you ever wondered, though, how Poinsetta got its start as a Christmas gift favorite?

How to Rebloom Mini Poinsettia after Christmas

Poinsettia’s Early History

This striking shrub has its roots in Southern Mexico, where it was used by native folks for medicinal purposes and was called ‘Cuetlaxochitl.’ What does that mean? Roughly translated: “The flower that perishes like all that is pure.” While this was long before the Christianization of the Americas (and thus had no connection as a Christmas gift), the Poinsettia still held a rich meaning.

In some areas, the Cuetlaxochitle’s red hue was esteemed as the god’s memorial to villagers killed during the Aztec conquest. To others, it was a symbol of forbidden love, with a Romeo-and-Juliet-style tale. And, to the Aztecs themselves, the Cuetlaxochitl was a symbol of Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun, war, and State protector. Great care was taken to cultivate Cuetalxochiltes to decorate the Capitol’s temple, with hundreds of men “backpacking” these plants 60 miles uphill.

Poinsettia’s First Christmas Gift Connection

Fast forward to the 1700s, and you’ll see a connection in Mexico between the Poinsettia and Christmas. While versions differ, here’s one favorite folklore tale: A poor village girl had nothing significant to offer as a gift during her village’s Christmas procession. Encouraged by a young boy to give whatever she could, the girl plucked some weeds and laid them by the nativity scene. A brilliant light then transformed the unsightly weeds into the Poinsettia!

Eventually, the Poinsettia was dubbed the “Flores de Noche Buena,” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.” It was a favorite decoration for local Christmas parades. However, its use was still limited to Mexico. How did it become popular elsewhere?

Poinsettia’s Rise in Popularity

In 1829, Joel Roberts Poinsett entered the scene as the American “Minister” to Mexico (nowadays, we’d call him an Ambassador). In his frequent travels there, Poinsett encountered this alluring red plant, fell in love with it, and sent it to his personal greenhouse in Greenville, South Carolina. Poinsett became the namesake for the Poinsettia since he was the one that gave it its big debut.

By the mid-1830s, Poinsett had shared enough of the Poinsettia with the right people that it was being grown in abundance and already starting its mainstream Christmas associations as cut flowers. By this time, it had also made its way to Europe.

The major breakthrough happened in the 1920s when the Ecke family farm in California started producing the Poinsettia outdoors on their ranch and promoting it. It was their idea to begin selling whole plants instead of stems. Plus, it’s thanks to them that we have so many Poinsettia varieties and colors today.

By the 1960s, the Ecke’s were select breeding Poinsettia varieties in greenhouses. Their newly cultivated Poinsettias were much more compact and visually appealing than their 12-foot tall natural-growing cousins. To promote the Poinsettias as a Christmas gift, the Ecke’s sent plants to popular TV talk show hosts in the hopes of getting free air-time (and it worked). We’ll just say the fad definitely caught on!

Why the Poinsettia Christmas Gift Preference?

There are plenty of winter-blooming plants out there, so have you ever wondered why Poinsettias flood the market?

For one thing, most people love tradition. Even though Christmas got its red-green color scheme from Holly and 1930s Coke-a-Cola Christmas advertising, the Poinsettia certainly matches traditional Christmas decor, making it a favorite gift.

Also, many people attribute symbolism to Poinsettia. Some view the plant’s star-like shape as a symbol of the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem. Others think of the red bracts (leaves) as the blood of Jesus.

Picking the Perfect Poinsettia

While we’d like to think that all plants at a store or nursery are correctly cared for, there are a few things you should look out for when picking a Poinsettia as a Christmas gift:

  • Bracts: The colored leaves (bracts) should be intact and perky.

  • Leaves: Ensure that the green leaves on your plant are healthy from top to bottom. Wilted or yellowing bottom leaves are an early signal for disaster.

  • Flowers: These are the yellowish buttons on top of the bracts. Make sure the flowers are intact and healthy. Bracts will not last long after the flowers, so make sure the flowers look young and vibrant.

Caring for a Poinsettia During the Christmas Season

So you either received or are giving a Poinsettia as a Christmas gift… how can you make sure it stays alive and healthy for as long as possible?

  • Temperature: Despite its reputation as a winter plant, the Poinsettia isn’t frost-hardy. Don’t leave plants outdoors as decorations. Maintaining temperatures between 60-65 will ensure that the flowers and bracts stay healthy for as long as possible.

  • Light: Make sure your plant is receiving at least 6 hours of bright, indirect light.

  • Watering: If your Poinsettia is wrapped in plastic, remove it as soon as possible to increase ventilation. Water your plant when the topsoil is dry.

  • Fertilizer: Don’t fertilize while your Poinsettia is in bloom. If it’s your plan to keep your plant past the holiday season, fertilize according to package instructions starting in January.

If you are interested in getting your Poinsettia to rebloom for next season, check out our blog for month-to-month care tips.

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