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Caring For Poinsettias

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My Grandma Daisy had a mixed cast of characters when it came to friends, acquaintances, and even family. This time of the year a certain plant family always fondly reminds me of two of them, both of them I knew simply by the names she called them — Mr. Albert and Mr. Paul.  Mr. Albert, was the father of Mr. Paul.  Their full names were Albert Eckes and Paul Eckes.

She’d met Mr. Albert during the 1940s when she was working as a seamstress for various fashion and costume studios in Burbank and Hollywood, California. Back then, his street side stands sold a decorative plant that was becoming increasing popular in California.  She was a big fan of poinsettias and Mr. Albert.

Gram’s interest however, wasn’t limited to the beauty of the plant. Her concentration was two-fold. As a seamstress and sometimes fashion designer, she and a Hispanic girlfriend were experimenting with the plant, long known for producing a radiant purple-red color when dyeing fabrics. Then, her other interest in the plant had to do with its medicinal properties when it came to reducing certain fevers. Ever curious about herbal remedies she was a serious student when it came to knowing natural cures. 

The milky sap portion of Poinsettias are used their latex for a depilatory (hair removal) in today‘s beauty products. But common herbal remedies that Grama and others used it for were:

  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Fever reduction
  • Inducing vomiting
  • Pain relief
  • Tooth aches
  • Warts 

This plant’s scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. Its common names, however, are many, depending upon where in the world you live. It is or has been known as:

  • Ataturk
  • Bent El Consul
  • Christmas Flower
  • Crown of the Andes
  • Cuitlaxochitl
  • Easter Flower
  • Flor de Pascua
  • Flowers of the Holy Night
  • Noche Buena
  • Oak Leaf
  • Papagallo
  • Zack Wood

Before I tell you about the two family members of the Ecke family, let’s take a look at some poinsettia basics:

History of Poinsettias

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Native to Mexico and Central America this plant has been a favorite of many peoples, with the earliest mention of it being found in Aztec literature, where it was known as “Cuitlaxochitl,” which loosely translates to “”flower that grows in soil.” Certainly, it was known by the 1600s by the Franciscan Priests in Mexico and California and well-documented in their writings. By the 1700s, the poinsettia became known in some European circles because descriptions of the plant appeared in botanist, Juan Balme’s studies of New World plants.

The very common name of poinsettia, for which the plant is most widely known under today, came from Joel Roberts Poinsett, who as the first U.S. Minster to Mexico (Ambassador) is claimed to have introduced the plant in 1825 (some records indicate 1828), despite the fact that the plant was known in Southern California long before that. 

Joel Roberts Poinsett wasn’t just an Ambassador and a fan of poinsettias — he later would start the Smithsonian Institution.  By 1836, the plant was renamed poinsettia after him. 

Poinsettia Plant

While most Americans think of the Euphorbia pulcherrima primarily as a potted plant — it is actually in the wild a shrub or small tree, that can be as short as two feet or as tall as sixteen feet. Wild poinsettias bear only slight resemblance to what is marketed today as a poinsettia.

As plants go, its leaves are fairly large, from three to six inches long, and generally (if healthy) dark green. Now, there is a lot of confusion among the general population as to the “flowers” which are not flowers at all, but leaves that simply look different. These vibrantly colored leaves can be of a number of colors (off white, palest of green, orange, pink, white, or variegated, but most often encountered is the fiery red). These leaves are actually modified leaves called “bracts,” and it’s at the center of each leaf where the plant develops the real flower, which is tiny chiefly yellow with tinges of red or orange. The flowers have their own special name — they are called “cyathia.”

Mr. Albert’s Poinsettias

I was a young girl when my grandmother introduced me to Mr. Albert and Mr. Paul.  That’s when she told me in front of them that after buying her first poinsettia, she had sought Mr. Albert’s expertise in caring for her plants as it died on her.  This was an unusual phenomenon, because she had the greenest thumb of just about anyone I’ve ever known and it really upset her.  Mr. Albert was a man in his late 60s at the time.  Her actual introduction to the elder man was, “Jerilee, this is the smartest old German I’ve ever met.  Not only does he know everything about poinsettias, but he built an empire around this one plant.”

Since I was a kid, I thought her introduction was very skewed and overly complimentary.  I was wrong.  Mr. Albert Eckes and his family created not only an empire from a lowly wild plant from South of the border — but they still rule the world of poinsettias.  Over eighty percent of all poinsettia plants sold on the wholesale market in the United States come from their operations.   Moreover, ninety percent of the poinsettias sold in the world got their start at their facilities.

Back then, Mr. Paul just stood there and smiled while his father got all the credit.  Little did I know, but he was the one who had developed the plant into the kind of poinsettia we all recognize today.  Thru his efforts and that of his son, Paul, Jr. they not only built a family empire and a near monopoly — but brought poinsettias to the holiday season, as America’s most favorite holiday plant.  Over eighty-five percent of all Christmas holiday plants purchased each year are poinsettias.

Caring For Poinsettias

The poinsettia requires darkness for at least twelve hours for five days in a row to change from being a pleasant dark green plant to the colorful holiday plant we all know and love.  Generally:

  • Poinsettias do best in a soil that is medium in fertility and slightly acid (6.0 to 7.0 pH).
  • If you are potting them or re potting them - 2 parts silt loam; 1 part manure; 1 part sand - works the best.
  • Ideal temperatures is 60 to 65 degrees F.
  • Temperatures should not be below 30 degrees at night, and preferably a lot warmer.
  • Do not over water.  The plants should be kept dry, but not too dry.
  • Do not place in drafts or windy spots.
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Poinsettia Haiku

Short day flower bracts

Before search for plum flowers

Red-plum poinsettia

-Jerilee Wei © 2011

If You’d Like To Know More About Poinsettias!

 The Eckes Family Poinsettia Story

Video - Caring For Poinsettias

Caring For Poinsettias