By: Timothy Mullin, Master Gardener
It would be an error to assume that the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Poinsett ‘discovered’ the plant we call by his name. While Mr. Poinsett was the first person to bring the plant back to the United States, the native inhabitants of Central America had known about this winter blooming plant for a long time. Spanish overlords sent samples to Carl Linnaeus for official descriptions and naming in the 1700s, but it isn’t an easy plant to bring into bloom, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention in Europe.
An avid plantsman from Charleston, Dr. Joel Poinsett was appointed the first U.S. minister to the new Republic of Mexico in 1825. While visiting an area south of Mexico City, Poinsett encountered this outstanding red-flowered plant, actually named Euphorbia pulcherrima, which he had to have, and, like most plant people, he wanted to share his find. Dates vary between 1825 and 1829 (as if 4 years makes much difference), during which he sent cuttings to his friends back in America. One of those people he exchanged plants with was William Bartram of Philadelphia.
Bartram’s Gardens, the oldest botanical garden in America, began in 1728 under John Bartram, plant collector to the King. John searched the colonies for new plant species which he shipped to Kew Gardens, England. His sons, John Jr. and William continued collecting native plants after the Revolution and expanded to an international trade rather than just shipping to the King’s garden at Kew. Joel Poinsett kept up correspondence with the Bartram brothers and sent one of his flower cuttings to William. Sadly, William had passed on, but his niece, Ann Bartram Carr continued running the plant business, and was grateful to the Ambassador for sharing his find.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society established their first Flower Show (which remains the largest indoor flower show in the world) in 1829. Ann Bartram Carr exhibited at that first flower show in Philadelphia, and featured her poinsettia.
Robert Buist, born a Scotsman, and trained as a gardener, came to America in 1828 and within a few years established a very successful nursery business, featuring roses, camellias and dahlias. He attended this first-of-its-kind flower show and was intrigued by the Bartram-Carr display, purchasing the poinsettia. Working with the plant to discover how it grew and bloomed, Buist realized that he could grow a number of ‘mother plants’ and by pruning them, he could increase the number of blooming branches, and by searing the cut branch ends, the lovely red bracts could survive for weeks as a cut flower. Buist had hit on the plant’s commercial value, Christmas Flowers!
By the mid-1830s, Buist was selling cut poinsettia flowers in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. He was doing great business and really established the poinsettia as a popular holiday symbol. Of course, others took advantage of Buist’s work and began growing their own ‘mother plants,’ and selling cut flowers in other cities.
During the Victorian period, known for the increasing love of poinsettias for holiday decoration, they were only sold as cut flowers. It wasn’t until the 20th century, with the switch to selling potted plants, that the poinsettia ‘industry’ took off.
Albert Ecke, a clever German immigrant, settled in California in 1900, where he ran an orchard and dairy, but he liked this Christmas flower and worked with it to discover how he could improve on the cut-flower trade. Albert realized how easily a cutting could be rooted, and that a growing plant had more blooms on it and sold for more than a single flower. Also, by rooting more than one plant in the same pot, a full, heavily blooming pot of poinsettias looked very beautiful and commanded an even higher price.
Albert began selling his potted poinsettias from street stands in Los Angeles, and did very well. His son, Paul Ecke, joined his father in making poinsettias their main business and developed the technique of grafting different colors of poinsettias onto plants in the same pot for very exotic looking plants. By 1923, the Ecke family had a virtual monopoly on the poinsettia trade. The third generation, Paul Ecke, Jr. began national marketing, mostly by providing free poinsettias to TV stations to decorate their stages during popular broadcasts, like Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials and the Tonight Show, taking the beauty of the flower into every home in America, making it even more that symbol of the season.