Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are native to southern Mexico and Central America. These bushy, deciduous plants bloom in winter and can grow to 3 metres or more in their natural habitat. Plant breeders have produced many different cultivars from this species as they strive for smaller sizes and a variety of shapes and colours. Early days in horticulture Poinsettias owe their common name to Joel R. Poinsett, who introduced them to the United States when he was the first American ambassador to Mexico, from 1825 to 1829. A scientist and botanist, Poinsett noticed euphorbias with red bracts growing wild in the hills around Taxco. He sent a few of these plants home to South Carolina for his personal collection, where he began propagating them in his greenhouses and giving them to friends and botanical gardens. A few years later, poinsettias were being sold at Christmastime in and around Philadelphia and New York.
No potted plants say "Christmas" more than poinsettias. Over 65 million of them are sold every year in the United States alone, making them the world's best-selling potted plants. Although commercial poinsettia production began in 1828, the Ecke family, which settled in the United States in the early 20th century, is probably the name most often associated with poinsettia growing. Through their selection and breeding work, they were able to produce smaller, longer-lasting, more vigorous and hardier cultivars that keep their leaves longer. The modern era of poinsettia growing began in 1923 with the introduction of the 'Oak Leaf' cultivar, the first to retain some of its leaves while in bloom. Earlier poinsettias had borne colourful bracts on leggy, leafless stems. Later, specimens with pink, variegated or white bracts began to appear on the market. Some double varieties were also grown in the 1930s. Since the 1960s, many different cultivars have been developed to adapt these plants to indoor growing conditions. All cultivated poinsettias today are hybrids and improved selections. They are available in an endless array of colours, from pink to burgundy, salmon, creamy white, yellow and bicoloured (mottled or marbled), with wavy or curved bracts and dark or medium green, variegated or oak-leaf foliage. The days when all poinsettias were red are long gone.
Poinsettias grew wild in the area around the modern-day cities of Taxco and Cuernavaca. Long before the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs knew this plant as cuetlaxochitl, and considered it a symbol of purity. They made medicine to treat fever from its latex and dye from its coloured bracts. The plant was probably first associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when Franciscan priests working in the Taxco area included poinsettias in their Nativity processions because they were so brightly coloured at this time of year. While most Mexicans continue to think of poinsettias mainly as "Christmas flowers," these plants were long used in traditional medicine by Central Americans. Until the 1950s, poinsettias were used almost exclusively as cut flowers or grown as outdoor plants in the tropics. Today, Christmastime would not be the same in Northern countries without these bright ornamental potted plants.