Do you love or hate poinsettias? I’m in the latter camp, I have to confess. When it comes to Christmas, I prefer white to red – paperwhite narcissi, or hyacinths, or amaryllis, not lurid red horrors that sit glaring at you from the dining room table. And as for the salmon ones…
No, as far as I am concerned, there is nothing pulchritudinous about Euphorbia pulcherrima, even if its botanical name does mean “most beautiful of the euphorbias”. The only time I have ever warmed to the sight of a poinsettia was in Madeira, where you can see occasionally see them growing au naturel – huge, leggy shrubs six feet or more high, like supermodels wearing bright-red lipstick.
How was it, I wondered, that this architectural, rather rock’n’roll plant became transformed into a squat red blob, sulking its way through the height of our northern winter and featuring on a thousand Christmas cards?
The man we must blame is Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and physician, who brought back the first poinsettia to the United States from Mexico, where he had been the equivalent of the first US ambassador.
Poinsett came from a wealthy Southern family, and travelled extensively in Europe, and especially Russia – where Tsar Alexander I tried to recruit him for the Russian civil service. He was elected to Congress in 1820 and was appointed first American Minister to Mexico (the precursor of ambassador) in 1825. On a visit to southern Mexico, he came across a flower known as the "Flor de Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve flower) and sent some cuttings back to his home in South Carolina.
Poinsettia had been associated in Mexico with the feast of Christmas since the 16th century, thanks to the legend of a poor Mexican girl/boy/family (depending on the version), who had no money to buy flowers to lay before the manger of the baby Jesus in the parish church on Christmas Eve.
There are several variations on the story, but the basic theme is that she/he/they decided to gather weeds from the roadside, thinking that at least this could provide a comfortable bed for the Saviour. As the stems were arranged around the figure of the baby, the weeds turned to brilliant red star-shaped flowers, symbolising the star of Bethlehem and the death of Christ.
Poinsett fell foul of the Mexican authorities, thanks to what they considered to be an uncontrollable and impertinent urge on his part to meddle in their business, and he took his leave of the country on 3 January 1830.
Although he gave his name to the plant, poinsettias are particularly associated in America with the Paul Ecke Ranch, based at Encinitas, California, the world’s largest and most successful poinsettia breeder. The Eckes began cultivating poinsettias in the 1900s, but the family business made a breakthrough in the 1960s, when Paul Ecke Jnr used cutting-edge technology –ie television – to bring his plants to a wider audience.
By grafting two varieties, the Eckes had turned the leggy wild poinsettia into the more compact plant we know today. However, Paul Jnr was determined to go further, and make poinsettias an obligatory part of the American Christmas experience.
He appeared on The Tonight Show and the Bob Hope Christmas Specials to promote his plants and ensure they were part of the sets. This piece of modern marketing paid off: poinsettias today are as much a part of the holiday season as evergreens and carols.
I’ve never been able to keep a poinsettia alive, so is this because I am an incompetent when it comes to looking after houseplants, or do they feel the hate vibes and keel over in response?
Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural advisor for the Royal Horticultural Society, was surprisingly sympathetic when I put this to him. “It’s a very common phenomenon – you get your poinsettia, it looks OK, you put it on the dining table on Christmas Eve and by Boxing Day it only has one bract left.
“Poinsettias need a minimum temperature of 13-15C. In most modern homes, that’s not going to be a huge problem in winter – so it’s probable that the plant has been shocked before it arrives in your house.
“If you’d bought the plant direct from the nursery where it had been grown in the right conditions, it would probably be all right. But what’s more likely is that it has been loaded on to Dutch trolleys and left standing outside the florist or in the garden centre in the cold. If it has been shocked before you get it, then trying to keep it looking good is going to be an uphill struggle.”
As a member of the Euphorbia family, poinsettia is related to some of the toughest, most adaptable plants on the planet. “Euphorbia is a highly successful and diverse group,” says Leigh, “and has adapted to all sorts of conditions. At one end of the scale there are euphorbias that look like cacti, while at the other are the cultivars that can be found in UK gardens, such as Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii, with bright green leaves in spring.”
What look like big red flowers are actually bracts – modified leaves – while the flowers themselves are quite insignificant. Bracts, says Leigh Hunt, provide an economical way of advertising nectar over a long period of time. Red is often an indication that a plant is pollinated by birds, and because birds don’t have a strong sense of smell, these plants – including poinsettia – are usually odourless.
If you want to grow poinsettia, says Leigh, there are a few basics to remember.
Choose a position that gives good light, but not too much direct sun.
Choose a room that is consistently warm, and in which the temperature does not drop below 13C. A hall or a porch, where the temperature drops at night, may not be suitable.
Keep the plant moist, but not soggy. The thumb test is always the best – push your thumb into the surface of the soil, and if it feels dry, water.
Some poinsettia fans keep their Christmas plants going from year to year, cutting them back hard in April, and repotting them. They can grow to be quite sizeable plants, but the key thing, says Leigh, is to keep them out of artificial light as much as possible in autumn, so that they follow the natural pattern of shorter winter days. Otherwise, any new bracts will revert to plain green.