With the Christmas season quickly creeping up on us, the Christmas card photo season is in full swing. This year, Kasey and I were asked to do a photoshoot for a family that owns one of the big poinsettia farms here in Georgia.
As a kid who grew up on a Christmas tree farm, I was beyond excited. I was also a bit stunned to realize that I’ve never been to a poinsettia farm. It was an area of Christmas crop farming I knew surprisingly little about. I guess this makes sense, as my mom pointed out—poinsettias do not fare well at all outside in the cold New England weather. So, we never grew them—they just aren’t practical to grow in Connecticut.
SIDENOTE PSA: We do still have some availability for holiday shoots, especially during the first two weekends of December. Our turnaround time for the holiday crunch is about one week, so there is still time to print cards or frame full photos for Christmas. Also, we are doing $50 off for family photoshoots during the week for the rest of the year.
During the shoot, surrounded by a hundred thousand poinsettias, I tried to keep it professional with the focus on the family’s experience and getting the best photos. In truth, I had a thousand questions and desperately wished it was more of a tour than work. I think I kept my cool during the shoot, but when I got home, I was bursting with questions. I immediately turned to the internet to read more about poinsettias and found out some surprising facts I think you all may enjoy.
Poinsettias are not poisonous
Perhaps the most popular myth about poinsettias is that they are poisonous. This is not true. Or at least, it’s about as true as water is poisonous. If you drink too much water in one sitting, you can die. The same is true for poinsettias. Experts estimate if you eat about 500 leaves, it could be fatal. Eating just a piece of a leaf could make your stomach upset though, and the white milk that emits from the plant is known to be a skin irritant for some people, especially those with latex allergies. I’m not sure how this myth started, especially since for hundreds of years it was used as a medicine to reduce fevers.
Poinsettias are from central and south america
When I used to live in Brazil, around Christmas poinsettias would be showing their bright colors in my friend’s yards. A common “foundation” plant, poinsettias actually migrated to the United States from Mexico just two hundred years ago. A native of southern Mexico, poinsettias have been used to decorate churches in December for centuries.
Poinsettias were brought to the US by the first United States Minister to Mexico
Joel Roberts Poinsett had an impressive resume. He was a congressman for South Carolina, the Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren, and a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (a predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution). The role that made his namesake popular today, however, was that as the first US Minister to Mexic—right after Mexico achieved independence. His most useful contribution there was helping to shape the government of Mexico as a republic, and yet he is known today for simply sending cuttings of the plant now known as a Poinsettia to his plantation in 1828. Relatedly, he also has a species of a Mexican lizard named after him, the Sceloporus poinsettii.
The red parts of poinsettias are leaves, not flowers.
The top most leaves of the poinsettia plant turn red when subjected to less than 10 hours of sunlight a day. These modified leaves, known as bracts, are the showy parts of the plant that attract us. The flowers themselves are small yellow blooms found right in the center of the bracts. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1960s that horticulturists were able to make these “blooms” in the bracts last for more than a few days.
Poinsettias have other names
Of course, the latin name botanists assigned to the plant is Euphorbia pulcherrima. However, the plant has been known throughout different cultures by other monikers. The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as a medication to reduce fever, calling it Cuitlaxochitl, meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” It is known in Mexico as Flor de Noche Buena, meaning Christmas Eve Flower. In Spain it is the Flor de Pascua, or the Easter flower. In Chile and Peru, the plant became known as Crown of the Andes. In Turkey, it is called Atatürk’s flower because Atatürk, the founder of the Republic loved it. In Hungary, it is called Santa Claus’ Flower, and it’s widely used as a Christmas decoration. They are also known as the lobster flower, the flame-leaf flower and the winter rose.
Poinsettias have a legend which links it to Christmas
The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where legend has it that a poor girl, with no means for a grander gift to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, was inspired by an angel to gather humble weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. The congregation then witnessed a Christmas miracle when the weeds sprouted crimson blossoms. Since then, franciscan friars have used the plant to adorn churches during the Christmas season in Mexico.
Meaning has also been ascribed to the plant, with the star-shaped leaf pattern symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
Poinsettias were celebrated by Aztecs as a blood sacrifice
Throughout the 14th – 16th century, the Aztecs used the sap from poinsettias to control fevers and the red bracts to make a reddish dye. The red color was celebrated in their culture as the color of purity, and its blood red color represented the sacrifice the gods made to create the universe, and the debt humans repaid with blood sacrifices. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, had poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravans as a symbol to the gods.
Poinsettias were a monopoly in the US until the 1990s
In 1900, Albert Ecke migrated from Germany to the US and began life as a farmer. His family changed the industry significantly over time, including changing the market from shipping mature plants by rail to cuttings by air, and marketing the plants by placing free plants on television shows like the Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials to create demand. His family also protected a technique of grafting two species together to create a denser, fuller looking plant that was substantially more attractive to consumers. This process was published by a researcher in 1991, and shared the secret outside of the Ecke’s family for the first time, opening them to competition, particularly to low cost labor in their native country, Mexico.
Poinsettias are actually a tree
In the wild, poinsettias can grow to be 12 feet tall, with leaves measuring 6 to 8 inches across, making them a small tropical tree.
Poinsettias is one of the largest potted plant crops in the US
Since the USDA first broke out the numbers in 1996, poinsettias have been one of the largest potted plant crop in the US, usually only being eclipsed by orchids. In the last USDA report summarizing 2015 potted plant crops, poinsettias made up $140 million of the $810 million industry number derived by reports from 15 states. California is by far the leading producer in this report with nearly 6 million poinsettia plants sold. Orchids are quite a bit larger of an industry, with $288 million sold in 2015.
Poinsettias have a holiday to themselves, and it’s not Christmas
Poinsettias do not like to watch TV
Poinsettias are a very finicky plant. Their brilliant colors depend on the right temperature and light. The plants need to stay above 50 degrees, and maintain a long dark night of 12 hours or more. Light from your TV at night when the plant is resting can actually fade the red bract blooms. Too much water sitting in the soil—something easy to do as the foil wrappings they typically come in prevent drainage—will also rot the roots of the plant and kill it. It is best to water the plant, and 30 minutes later drain it of all excess water.
Poinsettias are perennials
Poinsettias can come back year after year, however it requires some work and regularity to get them to bloom. Keep in mind that flowering in this plant responds to short day lengths (or actually long nights). In order for them to bloom at Christmastime, you’ll need to ensure darkness for your plants from 5pm to 7am or so, daily, for 8 to 10 weeks. If you do the math, this means that around October 1, these plants need to go on a daylight diet. They also can not get colder than 50 degrees, or ever have too much water. In short, these plants need a very controlled environment, which means you likely need to grow them in a greenhouse.
Poinsettias leave their farms before Thanksgiving
While we were given the exclusive opportunity to use our client’s poinsettia farm as a photo shoot location for the holidays, the window to do so has closed. Feel free to look through our favorite shots from the shoot for inspiration for next year. Unfortunately for your holiday cards this year though, all of these plants have been shipped this week to Home Depot locations around Georgia and Alabama for Black Friday, to be sold at dramatically reduced prices as low as $0.99. We did publish another post with 60+ ideas for creating your perfect Christmas card photoshoot if you still want to do a holiday shoot. If you are interested, contact us! Otherwise, let’s be sure to go next year!
And of course, for the Pinterest friendly image lovers…