The season for Poinsettias


Time for a story about a plant whose pesky pronunciation has a lot of people seeing red this time of year! Mark Strassmann sets the record straight.

In Greenville, South Carolina, one 1905 Craftsman-style home in particular is a canvas of Christmas color.

Travis Seward and Wade Cleveland have a passion for poinsettias.

“Are they in every room?” Strassmann asked.

“They are in every room,” Seward laughed. “And every room is a different color.”

Seward, with his eye for color, chose five different varieties. “I try to keep the room the same color,” he said.

“So this is all red throughout the hallway,” Cleveland explained. “They are Christmas, they speak Christmas, and if you have lots of them, they scream Christmas, I guess!”

Indigenous to Mexico, the red and green foliage we associate with Christmas is the second-most popular potted plant in the U.S. CBS News

Greenville has poinsettia pride. At the airport, new arrivals see it in a massive tree more than 10 feet tall, built with 168 plants.

“You can’t live in Greenville,’ said Seward, “and not understand that the poinsettia has a special place. They have the Poinsettia Parade for the Christmas parade.”

Not to mention a Poinsett Hotel, the historic Poinsett Bridge, and a Poinsett Highway. “So it’s hard to miss that there is a connection,” Cleveland said.

“It’s hard to miss in this house!” Strassmann laughed.

What’s LESS obvious is the history of these plants, which grow wild in Mexico. In the 1500s, the Aztecs were the first to cultivate them.

Franciscan missionaries arrived in the 1600s and thought the plant’s red color symbolized the blood of Christ. They called it La Flor de la Noche Bueana, or Christmas Eve flower.

In Taxco, Mexico, a Nativity parade earlier this month showcased the poinsettia’s enduring power.  Street mosaics in the city pay tribute to the plant.

Jim Faust, a horticulture professor at Clemson University, is an authority on poinsettias. “It is THE Christmas plant,” he said.

Poinsettia authority Jim Faust (right) with correspondent Mark Strassmann. CBS News

So, the big question: Is it pronounced poinsetta or poinsettia?

“Yeah, most academics and horticulturalists will say poinsettia. Joel Poinsett himself said poinsetta,” Faust responded.

Joel Poinsett, for whom the plant is named, was a 19th century politician who lived in Greenville. He was the first ambassador of the United States to Mexico -- and an avid plants person, so he was involved in the exchange of plants to and from Mexico.

And so in 1828 he sent the first plant to this country.

Americans became enamored of this plant that blooms only once: around Christmas. “It’s really in the early 1900s when poinsettias become popular, that you start to see stamps and Christmas cards that have red and green as dominant colors,” Faust said.

So the red and green we associate with Christmas coincided with the popularity of poinsettias? “Yeah, absolutely.”

By the 1960s and ‘70s, U.S. greenhouses produced millions of them. Poinsettias decorated the sets of Christmas specials on television, and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Poinsettia sales make up a $200 million market - that’s a lot of green! CBS News

Today, they’re America’s second-most popular potted plant, behind orchids. And there are more than 150 varieties, like Titan, Marble Star, Ice Punch and Freedom.

Shades of red make up 90 percent of the $200 million market.

Contrary to widespread belief, poinsettias are NOT poisonous to people or pets.

“If you taste the nectar on them, it tastes really good; it’s really sweet, like honey,” Faust said.  “Who knew?”

Consumers typically buy one or two.  Travis Seward has bought more than 80.  

Strassmann asked, “How do you know when to stop?”

Wade Cleveland answered for him: “He doesn’t ever know when to stop!”

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