Everyone knows, during the holiday season, that the Christmas tree is the undisputed king of festive greenery. Nevertheless, walk into any store selling live or artificial plants during the holiday season and you’ll soon recognize that the poinsettia is the queen of festive plants. People seldom think about the supply chains that make those items available. Many of the Christmas trees and poinsettias displayed in U.S. homes are imported. Last year, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, “live tree imports reached nearly 2.8 million trees at a value of $68 million.” The USDA also reports that, in 2022, the number of live poinsettia imports “totaled 2.2 million plants worth $11.5 million.” It’s not just Americans who are enthralled with the poinsettia. The truth is there is a global supply chain supporting the poinsettia trade. According to journalist Zachary Crockett, “It’s one of the most popular plants in the world, with annual sales of ~90m units and a global retail impact of nearly $1B.” Whereas the Christmas tree tradition has deep roots in the so-called old world, the Christmas poinsettia tradition is much younger and comes from the so-called new world. Crockett explains, “Behind the beautiful, blood-red bracts of the poinsettia, there’s a story rife with geopolitics, patent wars, a dethroned monopoly, and complex supply chains.” Such intrigue motivated him to ask, “How did this Mexican shrub become America’s best-selling holiday plant?”
History of Poinsettia
The poinsettia is a plant native to Mexico. According to reporter Marina E. Franco, “Aztecs in the 14th century called the plant cuetlaxóchitl, which roughly means ‘leathered flower’ in Náhuatl. They used it for warrior rituals and dyes, and the latex sap to treat wounds and help break a fever. Other Mesoamerican civilizations had different names. The Maya, for example, called it k’alul wits, which roughly translates to ‘fire flower.’ It wasn’t until the first Spanish settlers arrived in Mexico in the 16th century that the plant was specifically linked to the Christmas season. Colonizers used what they eventually called ‘flor de nochebuena,’ or Christmas Eve flower [sometimes called the ‘Flower of the Blessed Night’], to decorate nativity scenes to mark Christmas and attract people to the faith.”
According to Crockett, “For the next few centuries, the plant was cultivated and celebrated in Mexico — yet it remained obscure to the rest of the world. Then, along came Joel Poinsett. Poinsett, a wealthy Southern Unionist and slave owner, was appointed as the first US minister to Mexico. While there, he failed in an attempt to purchase Texas and became a persona non grata for meddling in the country’s internal affairs. But on a trip to the Southern town of Taxco in 1828, just before he was he recalled, he encountered the flor de nochebuena and was so struck by it that he shipped specimens back to the US.” Franco continues the story, “Admiring the plant during Christmas, Poinsett sent samples to friends, before the U.S. had phytosanitary regulations. Eventually, a sample from Poinsett made its way to a Philadelphia Botanic Garden, which debuted the plant in the U.S. at an 1829 flower show. It then spread throughout the country and across Europe under the name poinsettia.”
There was a problem, however. Crockett explains, “The plant would only last 2-3 days — and its weak disposition meant that it couldn’t readily be transported en masse. It would take an enterprising family with a knack for marketing to help the poinsettia realize its full saleable potential.” That family was the Ecke family. The patriarch of the family was a German immigrant named Albert Ecke, who in 1900, landed in Los Angeles on his way to Fiji. He decided to forego the trip to Fiji and stay in Los Angeles. That decision, Crockett notes, “would change the trajectory of agricultural history.” He continues:
“Ecke and his family established a dairy farm and a fruit orchard before eventually selling cut flowers, including poinsettias. By 1909, the poinsettias were selling so well that he made them the focus of his entire business. His son, Paul Ecke, assumed the business in the 1920s and moved the operation to Encinitas, 25 miles north of San Diego. Ecke soon developed secret breeding techniques that vastly improved the durability and aesthetics of poinsettias. In the wake of the Plant Patent Act of 1930, which allowed breeders to protect their new cultivars, he registered dozens of his creations, staving off competitors and copycats.”
Franco adds, “The family made the plant smaller, before mass-marketing it as a ‘California Christmas flower.’ The Ecke family’s patent is one of many for poinsettia varieties that remains in place today. Those varieties also have global protections through the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.”
Crockett notes that the Ecke family, thanks to their patents and ultra-secret breeding techniques, held a near-monopoly on the poinsettia market for decades. Then, Crockett reports, “In 1992, a graduate student named John Dole got his hands on an Ecke cutting and managed to reverse-engineer the company’s top-secret process — a method that involved grafting together 2 poinsettia plants. His published findings completely upended the poinsettia industry. … Competition flooded in, sparking a ‘golden age’ for poinsettias.” Journalists Hadley Mendelsohn and Arricca Elin SanSone add, “Poinsettia breeding means poinsettias don’t just come in plain red nowadays: You’ll also find them in shades of creamy white, pink, and burgundy, as well as in fun and funky varieties with speckles and splashes of white.”
The golden age for poinsettias also meant big changes in the poinsettia supply chain. Crockett observes, “These changes pressured growers to ruthlessly cut overhead expenses to compete, eventually ushering in an era of consolidation. Giant agriculture firms snatched up smaller outfits and shifted production overseas. After slowly watching its monopoly decline, Ecke — the one-time king of poinsettias — sold its business to a Dutch conglomerate in 2012. It marked the end of an era — and the beginning of a new, highly complex, international pipeline.”
Suzanna de Baca, a Latina and CEO of Business Publications Corp., notes, “The holidays are full of traditions and symbolism, and the poinsettia plays a key role at Christmas. But for years, I had no idea that this lovely flower has something to teach us about symbolism and multi-cultural appreciation. In fact, how the poinsettia came to the U.S. is an ironic tale of long-ago foreign policy blunders in Mexico. In addition to being a beloved holiday plant, the poinsettia is a reminder of how easy it is for us to appropriate the parts we love of various cultures while not always appreciating the bigger picture or valuing the people from that very culture. … Despite the lucrative poinsettia industry, Mexican growers have largely been shut out of the market. A century-old foreign soil restriction prevents Mexico from selling the poinsettia — its own native plant — in potted form, the more profitable part of the process.”
Few Christmas traditions are so fraught with intrigue as the lovely poinsettia or cuetlaxóchitl. De Baca concludes, “Having referred to the brilliant plant as a poinsettia for so long, I find it hard to switch to calling it cuetlaxóchitl (kwet-la-sho-she), but I’m committing. … The lovely cuetlaxóchitl helps us to reflect on our own multicultural legacy — what do we appropriate, unknowingly, without truly appreciating the history and culture from which it came? Where do we give credit? What do we take, and what do we truly give? And, most importantly, how can we learn to open our eyes and our hearts to others from every culture this Christmas season? Maybe that’s the true lesson and blessing of the pure and beautiful cuetlaxóchitl.” As you reflect on the true meaning of the holiday season this year — and admire the beautiful varieties of poinsettia plants — you might also give a little thanks for global supply chains that help you celebrate the holiday season by bringing you plants, food, and decorations.
 James Kaufman, “Live holiday plant imports into the United States reach $80 million in 2022,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 30 November 2022.
 Zachary Crockett, “How the poinsettia took over Christmas,” The Hustle, 18 December 2021.
 Marina E. Franco, “The poinsettia’s forgotten history,” Axios, 11 December 2022.
 Hadley Mendelsohn and Arricca Elin SanSone, “The Best Poinsettia Care Tips for the Holiday Season, According to Experts,” House Beautiful, 17 October 2023.
 Suzanna de Baca, “Happy Poinsettia Day – I mean Cuetlaxochitl Day,” Nebraska Examiner, 24 December 2022.