When Joel Roberts Poinsett returned to South Carolina from Mexico in 1825, bringing with him a wild, shrub-like tropical plant colored a brilliant red, he had no idea that he was starting a holiday tradition.
Poinsett, the United States ambassador to Mexico, was a botanist. He distributed a number of the plants to friends and botanical gardens, and it wasn't long before his prized plant grew in popularity.
Named for Poinsett, the poinsettia was first grown in Southern California in 1902. The plant was so prolific that untended fields blossomed into a lucrative sea of red.
Propagation of the poinsettia, which during the holidays can be found in almost any kind of retail establishment from flower shops to drugstores, is a multimillion-dollar business. And the plant has become as closely associated with Christmas as the Christmas tree.
"The guy that's really responsible for it catching on worldwide is Paul Ecke Sr.," Ventura County poinsettia grower Dudley Davis said. "He started stock farms all over Southern California during the early 1900s and traveled worldwide selling the plant."
Davis owns DoRights Plant Growers in Oxnard, which wholesales its poinsettias to local retail garden centers.
"We produce around 100,000 plants a year, and about 15% of our total production is sold for the Thanksgiving market and the rest for Christmas," he said.
Each March, Davis purchases rooted cuttings--referred to as "mother stock or plants"--from the hugely successful Paul Ecke Poinsettia Farm in Encinitas, which is now controlled by Paul Ecke Jr.
The cuttings are left to mature in temperature-controlled greenhouses and, come July, preparation begins for the feverish holiday market.
"From each mother stock, up to 50 tips are hand-removed from the stem and propagated in greenhouses," Davis said. The tip removal is done from July through Aug. 15 in two stages. The first batch of cuttings is earmarked for Thanksgiving, the second for Christmas production.
Temperature regulation is important during the plants' growth period, Davis said. Part of this regulation includes cooling the greenhouse 5 degrees below the nighttime temperature for the first two hours at dawn.
"This helps regulate stem growth," Davis said. "Otherwise the stems would grow too long and the leaves end up with an undesirable amount of separation between each."
DoRights grows poinsettias a variety of colors--all of which are hybridized--including red, white, pink, marble (cream with red blotches) and peppermint, which features a peach and pink combination.
"All varieties we purchase are patented," Davis said. "We pay 2 1/2 cents--some varieties are higher than others--for every cutting we make from the mother plants."
When mature, those 2 1/2-cent tips add up.
According to the Society of American Florists, a nonprofit trade association in Alexandria, Va., the poinsettia is the largest-selling potted flowering plant--even though it is sold only six weeks of the year.
"We're projecting sales to reach $49 million nationwide this holiday season," society spokeswoman Marbella Crabb said. Last year's sales totaled $46 million.
Crabb said the newest marketing trends in poinsettias include a "hanging plant variety and a small personal poinsettia for your desk."
There is also a new color that is gaining popularity. "It's a bright-yellow plant called the lemon drop," Crabb said.
However, the vibrant red is still the chosen favorite. "Eighty percent of the plants sold will be of the red variety," Crabb said.
As for the price, Ventura County residents can expect to pay from $6.95 to $13 for a poinsettia. "It depends on size," Davis said. "The most common is the 6-inch, which goes for around $7."
Although an annual holiday windfall for growers, the vividly hued poinsettia has failed to catch the eyes of consumers for occasions other than the wintertime holidays.
"It's sold only during Thanksgiving and Christmas," Davis said. "There has been a recent attempt to try and market a Mother's Day variety, which was a yellow plant, but it's not catching on."
The leaves near the top of the poinsettia, called bracts, produce such a sensational display that often are mistaken for flowers. The poinsettia flowers are actually those tiny little buttons at the tops of the stems, said Dudley Davis, owner of DoRights Plant Growers in Oxnard.
Once the plant is purchased, you can expect it to live roughly six to eight weeks before it starts to drop leaves, he said. Although the poinsettia's early mortality is inevitable, he said there are a couple of things you can do to keep it alive longer than expected.
Place the plant in bright light and keep it away from drafts. Do not allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings.
By the time the leaves begin to turn a pale yellow, signaling the end is near, you've probably removed all other holiday decorations anyway.
Said Davis: "Just enjoy them while they're around."