Finished pink poinsettias at the 2015 Heimos poinsettia trial in Heimos, Ill.

Author’s Note:I want to thank Dr. Jim Faust from Clemson University for all of the information, help and pictures he provided me for writing this article.

The poinsettia is the quintessential holiday pot plant with its showy, festive bracts. However, this seasonal staple was not always a holiday pot plant. Through past and present innovation, a tropical shrub with red bracts from Mexico was transformed into the iconic plant it is today.

Long before poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd.ex Klotch) ever became the plant that signals the start of the holidays, they were cultivated and used by the ancient Aztecs in modern day Mexico. The Aztecs considered them to be a sign of purity and found many uses for the brilliant red bracts, such as for dyes and medicine.

The poinsettia that the Aztecs knew looks very different than the poinsettia of today. In its natural habitat, the poinsettia takes the form of a tall, woody shrub and is found in canyons. The so-called red flowers of the poinsettia are actually modified leaves called bracts. The real flowers are enclosed in a structure called the cyathium, which together form the yellow center of the plant.

Introduction to America

If it were not for U.S. ambassador Joel Poinsett, the poinsettia might have stayed in canyons of Mexico. In 1825, while ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett traveled to Taxco and came across a wild poinsettia growing on the hillside. An avid botanist, Poinsett’s interest was piqued and he sent several of these fascinating plants to his home in Greenville, South Carolina, later distributing them to botanical gardens and horticultural friends.

However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that poinsettia breeding gained traction. In 1902, Albert Ecke emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and soon after became one of the first commercial producers of poinsettias, which were first used for cut flowers. In 1909, Albert died and his son Paul Ecke took over the family poinsettia business in Southern California.

Branching breakthrough
Finished red poinsettias at the 2015 Heimos poinsettia trial in Heimos, Ill.

In the decades after the poinsettia’s commercial introduction, there were many incremental advances in poinsettia breeding. But the biggest breakthrough came from Gregor Gutbier, a poinsettia grower and breeder in Linz, Germany. In the late 1960s, Gutbier came up with the brilliant idea of grafting varieties onto the poinsettia cultivar Annette Hegg – introduced in 1964, and the world’s first free-branching variety on the market. Gutbier expected that the grafting would result in improvements in color and longevity. However, to his surprise, the grafted plants also had better and more uniform branching than the original varieties he grafted onto Annette Hegg and were more compact. By introducing the branching agent through grafting on a plant that contained the poinsettia branch-inducing phytoplasma (PoiBI), Gutbier paved the way for poinsettias to become as highly popular as they are throughout the world today. Gregor Gutbier bred many varieties which dominated the European poinsettia market from the late 1970s through the late 1980s.

In the mid-70s, Gregor Gutbier sold this trade secret to Paul Ecke in exchange for royalty payments for the use of the technology. This revolutionized the breeding program at the Ecke Ranch and enabled them to become a prominent producer and breeder of poinsettias.

With this incredible advancement in hand, Paul Ecke, Jr., son of Paul Ecke, Sr. and owner of the Ecke Ranch, tirelessly promoted poinsettias in many ways, such as on the sets of late night television shows. Paul traveled the world for decades to visit breeders, research stations, and production companies. His vision was to make poinsettias the quintessential living Christmas symbol and his dedication to the poinsettia is one reason why the plant is as popular as it is today.

Titan Red, the early-finish poinsettia from Syngenta Flowers.
New innovations

Since the innovation of Gregor Gutbier and the promotion of Paul Ecke, the poinsettia market has grown in popularity. In 1976, approximately 15 million pots were sold in the US. In 2000, 66 million pots were sold, many of which are large 8-inch and 10-inch pots with multiple cuttings.

Today, Syngenta Flowers is continuing innovation and is defining the future of poinsettias. Building on the foundation first laid in the 1980s by its predecessor Fischer Pelargonien, Syngenta Flowers is expanding the notable assortment of Fischer poinsettias, like Cortez and Sonora, with groundbreaking varieties such as Titan Red, Pink and White. Optimized for easy and cost-saving production, the Titan family is recognized for its excellent habit and outstanding keeping quality. Titan White earned the Dutch Federation of Horticulture and Agriculture (LTO) trial awards for best white poinsettia introductions in 2014 and Titan Red is used as a reference variety in the trials.

In an ever-changing market where specialized grower and consumer characteristics often become the deciding factor for variety selection, Syngenta offers a range of specialized improvements relevant for producers and consumers – characteristics like easy-to-produce, heat-tolerant, easy-to-sleeve, high-density production, strong stems, longer keeping quality, and more cyathia. In a market where poinsettias need to be produced in a variety of sizes and climates, this enables producers to have the optimal production performance and exceptional retail quality.

Titan Red, White, and Pink.
Venus Hot Pink is a specialty pink poinsettia that gives a festive twist to holiday decorations.

As breeders consolidate and streamline their product offerings, the red poinsettia is becoming more important and specialty colors, such as white, pink, jingle, and marble have become secondary focuses for many growers, except for retail growers who want to differentiate their offerings. Nowadays, the introduction of one outstanding red variety can now dramatically shift the assortment grown by growers within a few years. Syngenta and other breeders are focusing on creating the next break-through poinsettia varieties, which growers and customer alike expect to have as many desirable traits as possible while still being able to be grown in every region So far, varieties like Titan have come close, but no existing varieties can achieve these goals under all climates perfectly.

The perfect poinsettia has yet to be produced, but considering what poinsettias looked like 100 years ago, it’s truly remarkable to see where the industry is today. And without the revolutionary idea of Gregor Gutbier to graft poinsettias on Annette Hegg, innovation by modern companies like Syngenta might not have happened, at least not as quickly.

Karl Trellinger is Customer Solutions Technical Lead, Syngenta Flowers.

Literature cited: “The Poinsettia” and “The Ecke Poinsettia Manual” have been used as very valuable resources throughout this article. ECKE , P. III, James E. Faust, Ph.D., Andy Higgins and Jack Williams. 2004 . The Ecke Poinsettia Manual. Paul Ecke Poinsettias, Encinitas, California, USA. The Poinsettia - The Jounal for the Poinsettia Professional, Volume 14 and 15 LAURA TREJO 2 , TERESA PATRICIA FERIA ARROYO 3 , KENNETH M. OLSEN 4 , LUIS E. EGUIARTE 5 ,BARUCH ARROYO 2 , JENNIFER A. GRUHN 4 , AND MARK E. OLSON 2,6 POINSETTIA’S WILD ANCESTO IN THE MEXICAN DRY TROPICS: HISTORICAL, GENETIC, AND ENVIRONMENTAL EVIDENCE 1 American Journal of Botany 99(7): 1146–1157. 2012.

Wild poinsettia in Oaxaca, Mexico, showing the small, sparse bracts, tall habit, and long internodes of wild plants.
Poinsettia’s Wild Ancestor in The Mexican Dry Tropics by Laura Trejo