Evolutionary Quirks Helped Poinsettias Rule the Holidays


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The tiny little yellow man is the precise flower. The pink bits are leaves. (Credit score: Scott Bauer/USDA)

Poinsettias are a vacation icon. Their crimson colours are so commonplace this time of yr that they virtually mix into the background. And as soon as the vacations are over, they’ll disappear like so many Christmas timber.

However these seemingly boring flowers truly cover a captivating historical past. Poinsettias owe their vacation prevalence to some bizarre quirks of evolution — and one intelligent Southern California entrepreneur.

Christmas Colours

The poinsettia has been tied to Christmas for hundreds of years, with the custom beginning not lengthy after Catholicism reached the brand new world. There are roughly 100 poinsettia species native to Central America, and a few of these flowering shrubs can develop greater than 10-feet tall. Europeans noticed spiritual symbolism in these blood-red flowers that bloomed across the winter solstice. They weren’t the primary, both; Aztecs additionally used poinsettias of their ceremonies.

However these pink flowers aren’t truly flowers in any respect. They’re leaves.

To clarify, let’s take a fast dive into the evolutionary historical past of flowers. Some 90 p.c of contemporary land vegetation are angiosperms — mainly, they flower. And scientists suppose all these flowers descended from one widespread ancestor. Earlier this yr, researchers introduced that the primary bloom possible occurred some 140 million years in the past.

Again then, as immediately, flowers had the identical primary elements. There’s the stamen — the plant’s pollen-producing organ, which is housed within the ovary. The petals defend these organs and appeal to pollinators to assist the plant reproduce. Under the flower, you’ll discover help leaves known as the sepal and the bract. These magnificent reds you see from poinsettias is definitely the bract.

The bract leaves help prop up the olive flower in this USDA handbook illustration. (Credit: USDA)

The bract leaves assist prop up the olive flower on this USDA handbook illustration. (Credit score: USDA)

Flowers That Want Darkness

Over time, evolution has taken flowers down many routes. And that’s the place we get again to the poinsettia. Its bract developed vibrant Christmas hues — amongst different colours — to draw pollinators. And its actual petals shrunk till they had been misplaced to evolutionary historical past. You possibly can see this for your self in case you take an in depth take a look at the poinsettias in your house or office. The flower is definitely a tiny inexperienced or yellow construction that appears extra like a stamen. After the flower’s pollen is gone — submit Christmas — the bracts fall off, leaving poinsettias wanting slightly drab till subsequent winter.

However evolving large pink bracts alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to make poinsettias a vacation custom. They wanted to flower at Christmas. Many vegetation die again because the nights develop longer forward of the winter solstice. However that very same darkness is the precise factor that makes poinsettias’ bracts change from boring inexperienced to Christmas crimson. The method is known as photoperiodism. Poinsettias don’t flip pink till they’ve had no less than 5 days with 12 midnights. That’s a lesson realized by anybody who’s tried to maintain a poinsettia for subsequent Christmas — they want particular care to flower once more.

The Ecke Empire

Our ultimate historical past lesson reveals how these evolutionary quirks made poinsettias a vacation season mainstay. Again within the 1800s, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the primary American ambassador to Mexico, launched the vegetation to the U.S. However it took a California entrepreneur named Paul Ecke and his household to show them into probably the most generally offered potted plant within the nation.

Practically a century in the past, Ecke discovered learn how to develop poinsettias as an indoor potted plant — his enterprise grew till it was promoting them across the nation. And within the 1960s, underneath the management of his son, Paul Ecke Jr., their firm created a hybrid that may bloom for weeks as a substitute of days. Then Ecke Jr. cunningly received his flowers into Christmas-themed journal photograph shoots and TV present backdrops till the general public noticed poinsettias as a typical image of the vacations.

By the point Paul Ecke III offered the household enterprise in 2012, their firm managed half of the worldwide poinsettia market — an empire constructed on evolutionary and human resourcefulness.

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