DID POINSETTIAS REALLY GET HERE?
by Whit Gibbons
December 19, 2004
I was reading
an older edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica about a man described
as "a U.S. statesman noted primarily for his diplomacy in Latin America"
and also for being the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Joel Roberts Poinsett,
of Charleston, S.C., was born in the late 1700s and lived till 1851. Only
near the end of the article was it mentioned that Poinsett also brought
back from Mexico a flower that is now the top-selling potted plant in
the United States, the Christmas flower, or poinsettia.
no one seems to contest that John Poinsett brought the bright red flowers
and their seeds to the United States, some controversy surrounds the exact
manner in which the species persisted and became of commercial importance.
The current thinking among horticulturists is that Poinsett sent the seeds
to a commercial nurseryman named Robert Carr. Turns out that Colonel Carr
was married to Ann Bartram Carr, whose grandfather John Bartram established
Bartram's Botanic Garden in Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, this twisted
tale has a connection with William Bartram the traveler, who was the son
of John Bartram and the uncle of Ann, but whether William ever even saw
a poinsettia, wild or potted, I have no idea. Anyway, according to one
of the largest producers and distributors of poinsettias today, the Paul
Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., Colonel Carr "introduced the poinsettia
into commercial trade from Bartram's Garden on June 6th, 1829." The
occasion was an exhibition by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society,
which ultimately evolved into the long-standing Philadelphia Flower Show.
belong to a large and economically important family of plants known as
the Euphorbiaceae, many of which are called spurges. The more than 7,000
species in the family are distributed throughout the continents and islands
of the world, making it one of the largest and most widespread plant groups.
Some euphorb species are used as ornamental plants; others are the source
of rubber, castor oil, and tapioca.
are similar to dogwoods in that the parts of the plant that are so attractive
to us are not actually petals; they are bracts, which are small, inconspicuous
structures on most other flowering plants. Most of us are familiar with
poinsettias as potted plants that are prevalent during the holiday season,
but in their native Mexico and Central America, poinsettias are large
shrubs that get more than 10 feet tall. As with the commercial variety,
these showy plants bloom during the winter in the wild.
Clearly, poinsettias have become a commercial product of note during the
winter holiday season. We have all seen the traditional red poinsettias,
which still constitute approximately three-fourths of the market. But
varying shades of reds, pinks, creamy white, and a recently developed
purple poinsettia are among the other varieties available today. To see
some dramatic-looking poinsettias such as Cranberry Punch, Freedom Salmon,
and Monet Twilight, click on Poinsettia
Varieties at the bottom of the page at www.pauleckepoinsettias.com.
site also has some tips on poinsettia care. Keep the thermostat set between
68 and 70°F, which is about normal room temperature for most people,
being sure they never experience temperatures below 50. Keep poinsettias
away from fireplaces, heat vents, and areas where they might experience
cold drafts. Water them whenever the dirt in the pot feels dry, but be
careful not to overwater. The plant should be placed in an area to receive
about six hours of indirect sunlight each day, preferably avoiding direct
sunlight. And if you want to keep your poinsettia thriving after the holiday
season, use an all-purpose fertilizer. But, and this is very important,
do not fertilize the plant until the blooming season is over. Properly
cared for plants will last for several months.
R. Poinsett's fame rests primarily with his having introduced the United
States to its premier Christmas season flower. But his name also lives
on in some Spanish-speaking countries--in an entirely different context.
Apparently his policies in Mexico were unpopular and his personality abrasive.
Someone coined the word "poinsettismo," which is used to characterize
someone as having "officious and intrusive behavior," a less
flattering legacy than the beautiful "poinsettia."
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