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A Flower in Winter: The Poinsettia's Story

I’m Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

In many colder northern countries, poinsettias are a sure sign that Christmas is near. Nearly all sales of this flowering plant come at wintertime. Yet the poinsettia is native to Central America and needs warm weather to grow.

Red poinsettias are the best known. But there are about one hundred different kinds, and they come in several colors.

Here is how the poinsettia became one of America’s most popular flowers:

In eighteen twenty-five, a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett was appointed the first United States minister to Mexico. Mister Poinsett was a diplomat, but he was also interested in plants. He brought back examples of a colorful plant to the United States.

The botanical name for the plant is Euphorbia pulcherrima (yoo-FOR-bee-uh puhl-KEHR-ee-muh). In Latin, that means “most beautiful euphorbia.” There are hundreds of members of the euphorbia family. Rubber trees, trees that produce castor and tung oil, and the cassava -- an important root crop -- are all members of this family.

Wild poinsettias can grow to four meters in size. They contain latex, like rubber trees.

The flowers of the poinsettia are very small. Around the flowers are colorful leaves called bracts. These make the plant popular.

In the nineteen twenties, Albert Ecke and his son Paul became interested in the poinsettia’s ability to flower in winter. Paul Ecke thought it would be good at Christmastime. The two started a farm near Encinitas, California.

At first Paul Ecke, and later his son, Paul Ecke Junior, grew large plants in fields. Then they sent them to growers by train. Growers could divide the large plants into cuttings, to raise smaller ones in greenhouses until the holidays.

In the nineteen sixties came poinsettias that grew best in containers. The Eckes started to sell cuttings from these new plants.

Today, five companies supply poinsettia cuttings for the world’s large growers. Three are European.

In the United States, there is Oglevee in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California. The Ecke Ranch supplies about seventy percent of the cuttings used in the United States, and about half of the world supply.

Poinsettias are the most popular potted flowering plant in America, with sales last year of about two hundred fifty million dollars.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.