It’s hard to imagine, but in the next few weeks over 2 million poinsettia plants in British Columbia will be selected from greenhouses, sleeved, boxed and shipped to destinations all over Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. The poinsettia’s association with Christmas, which dates back to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, will see them lending their vivid colours to homes, offices and public buildings as we celebrate the season.
It’s also hard to imagine that the shrubby plant growing in its native habitat on hillsides in Mexico and Central America, naturally blooming red in December, could be transformed into a compact potted plant suitable for living rooms, in colours of pink, white, marble, burgundy, salmon, and yellow, with all sorts of variations in between!
The poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was utilized by the native peoples in dyes. The colourful red bracts which appeared every December were a symbol of purity to them. When the Spaniards came priests began to use the flower in Christmas celebrations.
Two plantsmen figure in the poinsettia’s ascension to holiday stardom. The first was Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico from 1825-29. As an amateur botanist he sent cuttings of this native wildflower back to his greenhouses in South Carolina, introducing the plant to North America, and being immortalized in name for doing so.
The second important individual was Albert Ecke, a German immigrant to southern California in 1906. He noticed the red bracts of the poinsettia growing on the hillsides, and began to raise them in fields for sale as cut flowers. Albert’s son, Paul, expanded the business, selling from stands in Hollywood locations such as the present day Sunset Boulevard. By 1920 Paul Ecke had developed a poinsettia that would survive indoors, and in 1923 a plot of land in Encinitas, California had been purchased and devoted to production of the plant.
Until the 1960’s poinsettias were field-grown, and cuttings from these “mother plants” were shipped all over the country by rail. These early plants were plagued by leaf drop, which limited their appeal. By now Paul Ecke’s son had taken over the business. He was determined to see the poinsettia become a bigger part of Christmas celebrations, and spearheaded the move towards greenhouse production. Paul Ecke Jr. developed a variety that would hold its bracts indoors for a longer period of time, and he also promoted the poinsettia as an essential holiday plant.
Although the Ecke family is no longer involved the property is still producing poinsettias. The focus is on breeding new varieties, with unique forms and colours that offer beautiful alternatives to the traditional red.
No matter what colour of poinsettia you choose, the guidelines for choosing the best one, and its subsequent care, are the same. The vivid colours don’t come from the flowers, they come from the bracts. The real flowers are in the centre of these bracts. Look for tight buds on these greenish-yellow flowers. If they’re fully open, or if they’ve fallen out entirely, that plant is past its prime.
The colour of the bracts and the foliage should be strong, with dense foliage extending all the way down to the pot. Plants should have sturdy stems, with no signs of wilting or breakage. All of these are indicators that the poinsettia has been grown with enough space, which they need to flourish.
Never buy a poinsettia that is still in its plastic or paper sleeve. The plant gives off ethylene gas, and when it’s trapped within the sleeve it causes the foliage to fall off prematurely. However, when transporting your poinsettia home from the garden centre it should be sleeved to protect it from the cold. Even a short exposure to winter temperatures can cause leaf drop.
Poinsettias like six hours of bright, indirect natural light. Allow the soil to dry slightly on top before watering. Locate them where they won’t be exposed to hot or cold drafts. They prefer average room temperatures, so if you’re comfortable, so is your poinsettia.

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