The Poinsettia: An evolving tradition

In its native Mexico, the poinsettia’s prehispanic Nahuatl name, cuetlaxochitl, literally translates to “flower that wilts”. Cultivated in special nurseries in the Aztec highlands, the plants graced Montezuma’s capital city in the 16th century. Although a few 20th century magazine articles mistakenly designated poinsettias as highly poisonous, the white milky fluid exuded after plant tissue injury, known as latex, was used medicinally by the Aztecs. This substance, iconic of the genus, can cause mild skin irritation and is a natural defense against herbivores, so don’t expect your pets or children to try more than a taste. The colored parts of the plant that form at the end of each branch are not actually flowers, but modified leaves called bracts. The poinsettia’s flowers are actually the tiny yellow structures at the center of the colored bracts, called cyathia.

When fully ripe, there is a sweet, sticky substance that oozes from the cyathia that tastes vaguely of honey. When the United States Secretary of War Joel Poinsett went to Mexico as an ambassador in the 1820s, he saw market potential for the plant and had samples sent back to American horticultural institutions, including to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

Over the ensuing century, the plants became more readily available. They grew particularly well in the hot, dry climate of southern California. This is where, in the early 20th century, the Ecke family established their poinsettia nursery. What made the Ecke poinsettia different from all others was an industry secret for many years. They developed a grafting technique that caused a phytoplasmic infection, the introduction of a bacteria which in some cases could cause plant death or deformation. The result of this particular infection, though, resulted in transforming the leggy, weedy, natural poinsettia of the Mexican forests into a bushier, free-branching plant suitable for American living rooms. This new form was not only significantly more attractive but was also much more durable in a nursery setting, and the Ecke family had a monopoly on the market.

Read more at Longwood Gardens (Betsy Beltz)

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