Known today as a Christmas season tradition, the Poinsettia has its American roots in South Carolina.
South Carolina native Joel Poinsett brought the plant to the United States after serving as ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1830.
“It’s named after him because he was living in Mexico at the time… and, while he was there, he had the plant shipped to the United States where it quickly became popular,” Clemson University Floriculturalist and Plant and Environmental Science professor Jim Faust said.
Despite the plant’s popularity, Faust said it took some time for it to become associated with Christmas decor.
“A lot of the Christmas traditions developed in the late 1800s and Poinsettia was grown all through that time of 1800s and it naturally flowers at Christmas,” he said. “So as the Christmas holiday became commercialized, became the popular mindset of that era… Poinsettia was there as a plant to be absorbed into the traditions. It was red. Red was becoming the Christmas color at that time. Prior to Poinsettia, the main Christmas plants associated with Christmas were holly and ivy.” He said the plant became especially popular around the holidays about 100 years ago.
In Mexico, Poinsettia grows wild on cliffsides in deciduous tropical forests in the mountains. It’s also grown as landscape shrub that can reach 12 to 15 feet tall. It does not tolerate freezing temperatures. The growing season starts there in March and cuttings are taken in July.
“The Poinsettias we have today are not your grandmother’s Poinsettias,” he said. “They are a much, much tougher plant. They used to be really weak. You’d bring them home, all of the leaves fall off of them within days. But the breeding has improved so much that you should be able to buy them in late November or early December and they really make it through the Christmas season.”
Faust said it’s best to keep a Poinsettia between 50-75 degrees and they don’t need much water in a home environment.
“That pot cover doesn’t allow water to drain out of the bottom of the pot,” he said, so remove the decorative cover from the pot. “Keep them a little moist. The more light they get the longer they’ll last.”