Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but Americans overwhelmingly (69 per cent) prefer red.

Pink comes in a distant second with 14 per cent, and white last with only 7 per cent. Don’t call up your hairdresser to make an appointment: these color choices have little to do with locks and everything to do with holiday custom.

Red is the color for poinsettias. Tradition (and the almighty consumer) dictates it. The economics of this plant speak for itself. Consider that at least 80 per cent of potted plant sales this time of year are poinsettias. And this plant means business — more than $220 million worth sold during the holiday season. Botanical big bucks!

The poinsettia comes from humble roots (no pun intended). Native to Mexico and Central America, it was given its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, by a botanist who observed it growing through cracks in his greenhouse and realized that it did not yet have an identity in the scientific community. It didn’t stay down south for very long. In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, introduced it to America, and once cultivation began in earnest, it was named in his honor. (The botanist should have grabbed the glory for himself.)

Poinsettias can grow in all 50 states, but only one state and one company can claim almost exclusive dominance. Ecke Ranch in California produces more than 80 per cent of all poinsettias. Founder Paul Ecke was the godfather of the commercial poinsettia business. Now the monarchy is continued by his son and grandson, Paul Ecke 2nd and 3rd, respectively, and the flower monopoly continues.

The Christmas flower is also called the winter rose, Christmas star, and Mexican flame leaf. Its association to Christmas comes from a legend of a child. Pepita was going to church to pay homage to the Christ child, but was so poor that she was not able to bring a gift. Her companion told her that “a humble gift, if given in love, is acceptable in God’s eyes.” (Remember this as you are doing your last-minute buying.) Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered some weeds into a bouquet to bring to honor the birth of the Holy Child. When she brought them into the church, they burst into full red bloom and became known as the flowers of the holy night, or flor de la noche buena.

We make a mistake when we admire the red flowers of the poinsettias. The red flowers are not flowers at all. They are modified leaves, called bracts. The actual flowers of the poinsettias, called cyathia, are the small yellow structures found in the center of all of those brilliant red leaves. To create this vibrant color, commercial poinsettias must be kept in complete darkness from October through December during the hours of 5 p.m. to 8 a.m.

While many think that poinsettias are toxic, that is an urban legend, perhaps one of the first such nationwide rumors. It was claimed in 1919 that a child of a soldier ate the plant’s leaves and died from the toxins within. While this rumor still persists, it has been proven false by medical resources. The worst that can happen from ingesting parts of this plant is an upset stomach. There is no need to test this contention, especially this time of year when there are so many other wonderful things to eat.

On second thought, perhaps we should pass on the season’s sweet treats and enjoy the calorie-free deliciousness of the lush red poinsettias.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.