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Showy poinsettias an easy way to brighten holiday homes

Poinsettias have become a hoiday staple, brightening homes at holidaytime with colors from cheery red to frosty white.

By Lynn HuntCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2009

Not your Mom's holiday plant -- poinsettias keep getting fancier every year.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Hunt

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When we think about “decking the halls” for the holiday season, most of us envision boughs of holly, evergreen wreaths, and fragrant firs or pine. But in addition to traditional greenery, one plant has become a Christmas icon -- the poinsettia. With more than 65 million sold each year, this colorful plant has moved from the desert into three-quarters of American homes to become a holiday superstar.

The poinsettia is a Euphorbia, a succulent from the arid regions of Central America. It was named after Joel R. Poinsett, a Charleston,S.C., native who was appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett was a keen gardener who was captivated by the plant’s vivid color. The bright scarlet objects many thought to be “flowers” were not flowers at all, but petal-like leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are those little yellow dots at the center of the bracts.

Because the yellow flowers and attractive bracts emerge during the holiday season, the poinsettia has been a part of Christian celebrations for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Franciscan priests in Mexico carried poinsettias in nativity processions. The Aztecs were said to have prized the plant for its color and medicinal properties.

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Although poinsettias were well known in Mexico and Central America, it was a family of German immigrants who spied the plants in the desert and created the Christmas favorite we know today.

In the early 1900s, Albert Ecke and his family left Germany to establish a farm in California. One day his son Paul noticed an unusual plant growing in the wild and decided to develop it as a cut flower. Before long, the family’s fields of poinsettias in Hollywood became a huge attraction.

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