The garden centers and other retail outlets are ablaze with holiday plants as the holiday season approaches. The most traditional holiday plant is, of course, the poinsettia. It is simply amazing to see these plants we associate with Christmas merrily blooming in climates known for their sand and sun. In their natural form, they are a large, leggy shrub that is adorned with lovely red “blooms” on the ends of the branches.

The Christmas poinsettia is a member of the large group of plants known as Euphorbias. The group displays extreme variability in growth habit, from succulent types so cactus-like in appearance that one member of the group was given the botanical name Euphorbia pseudocactus to leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), which is considered a noxious weed. However, the Christmas poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is the most famous member of this diverse group of relatives. The species name pulcherrima means “most beautiful,” and market sales support that we, as consumers, agree. Poinsettias say Christmas is everywhere, and 70% of the poinsettias grown are sold in regions that never get snow.

Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and Central America. Although red is still the best-selling poinsettia, plant breeders have produced many different cultivars with various shapes and colors. Joel R. Poinsett is the man given credit for introducing this plant into the United States when he was the first ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. As he was a scientist and a botanist, he noticed these shrubs growing wild in the hills around Taxco and sent a few of these plants home to South Carolina for his collection. He began propagating them in his greenhouse and giving them to friends and botanical gardens. It was only a few years later that poinsettias were being sold at Christmas time in and around New York and Philadelphia. It is the Ecke family whose name is most often associated with growing poinsettias as they did much selection and breeding work to produce smaller plants that were longer-lasting and vigorous in growth. The ‘Oak Leaf’ cultivar was the first of the poinsettias to retain some of its leaves while in bloom, as earlier cultivars would have colorful bracts on leggy, leafless stems. Since the 1960s, most of our poinsettias have been hybrids, and the result has been even more improved selections.