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Power of the Poinsettias

For years and years, poinsettias have been a Yuletide staple. The sea of red petals has flowed through every church, store, and house to symbolize the holiday spirit. Their beauty is distinct because their bracts (colored leaves) stay luscious for long periods of time. However, not many people know the political war behind the beautiful flowers.

The poinsettia plants were cultivated and celebrated in Mexico for years before Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American physician and diplomat, tried to meddle with the internal affairs of America. Poinsett had been appointed the first U.S. minister to Mexico. He tried and failed to buy Texas during his time there, but he came across the flor de Nochebuena. The plant was quickly shipped back to the states, where it made its first American debut at a flower show in Philadelphia. But, unfortunately, it didn't stay alive long due to its natural state.

It took Albert and Paul Ecke, a father-son duo from Germany, to figure out the secret to the pretty plants. "Nobody at the ranch knew the secret," Paul Sr.'s grandson, Paul Ecke III, later told the Los Angeles Times. "My grandfather, my dad, and their breeder knew, and it was done at the breeder's home so nobody could see."

The family held their gatekept secrets to their chest very carefully until a brilliant graduate student, John Dole, unlocked it. He had gotten a hold of one of the flowers, reverse-engineered their process, and published everything he found. Then, finally, the Ecke family's secret was out: they grafted two poinsettia plants together, resulting in a fuller and more robust plant. Naturally, this knowledge made the poinsettia industry go bottom-side-up, as everyone could do what they never could before.

Not only did poinsettias change the course of the holidays, but they turned the floral industry into something commercial, and that's how they became some of the most famous plants in the world.


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