Poinsettias, with their bright red leaves clustered to look like flowers, are a traditional symbol of the winter holidays throughout the world. But did you know that about 70% of the poinsettias purchased in the United States and about 50% of those sold worldwide get their start right here in San Diego?
Poinsettias are native to Mexico and were introduced to the United States in the 1800's by Joel Roberts Poinsett -- botanist, physician, and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. In the 1920's, the Ecke family of Encinitas became enamored of the plants and began selling them from roadside stands in Southern California. Paul Ecke Jr., the third generation of his family to sell the plant, is considered the father of the poinsettia. He developed a method for making the naturally leggy plant into a fuller and more attractive one for household use. He also expanded the market by shipping cuttings by air rather than sending mature plants by rail. He established the association between poinsettias and the winter holidays by sending free plants to televisions stations to display from Thanksgiving to Christmas and also appeared on programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope's Christmas specials to promote the plants.
The colored parts of the poinsettia, which most people think of as the flower, are actually colored bracts, or modified leaves. There are now more than 100 varieties of poinsettias and they are available in colors including red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled, and speckled. The traditional red still dominates sales, however. Poinsettias are the most popular potted plant in the United States and contribute more than $250 million to the U.S. economy.
The plants are honored on December 12, Poinsettia Day and the anniversary of the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851. Here in San Diego, we also acknowledge the poinsettia's local importance with football's Poinsettia Bowl, first played here in the 1950's and then revived in 2005.
(Editor's note: This post originally appeared in State Assemblymember Toni Atkins' e-newsletter).