Poinsettias are everywhere right now (although maybe not at their pre-recession levels, have you noticed?) and it’s always funny to me that this plant seems to have such an association with Christmas, and by extension Christianity, when for most of its history it was used by the Aztecs for dye and medicinal purposes, and in their own religious ceremonies.

    It wasn’t until the 1960s that botanists and plant geneticists figured out how to get the plant to bloom for more than a few days, which as you can imagine greatly increased its popularity. Today, poinsettias account for one third of all potted plant sales in the United States. So it’s not my imagination—they really are everywhere.

    What interests me more than the plant itself is its history. The 18th and 19th centuries were a time of extreme enthusiasm on the part of plant collectors in Europe and the United States. At that time plant collecting was very fashionable, mostly pursued by those with ample means. An insatiable lust for new specimens from exotic lands drove wealthy travelers and explorers to ship vast numbers of seeds, bulbs, and plants around the world. The story of the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is pretty typical. It journeyed from its native Mexico after being discovered by the American Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. A diplomat whose true passion was botany, his cuttings made their way to Philadelphia and into the hands of John Bartram’s nursery. Having somewhat mastered its cultural requirements, it was introduced to the public at the 1829 Philadelphia Flower Show. Fast forward a mere 190 years or so and here we are, wading through millions of the descendents of this plant that at one point exemplified the lust for the new and the different.

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