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Not only is poinsettia the most popular Christmas plant, it is the number-one flowering potted plant in the united states, even though its traditional sales period is just 6 weeks.

That was not the case back in 1976, when ARS first began its program to improve the flower's dependability. This meant discovering the exact conditions of light and temperature the plant requires. they also performed breeding experiments that defined how color develops, and they devised precision growing methods that enabled massive cultivation.

Last year, the wholesale value of the poinsettia crop reached nearly $170 million-a jump of more than 400 percent from 1976.

The poinsettia, a contemporary symbol of Christmas, was introduced to the United States and named after Joel Robert Poinsett in 1825. Poinsett was serving as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico when he saw the plant growing on the hillsides of southern Mexico, where the plant is native. The Aztec Indians prized poinsettias and considered them a symbol of purity because of their brilliant red color. They made a reddish-purple dye from the colored "flowers", which are actually modified leaves called bracts. They also made a medicine against fevers from the latex sap of the plant.

Photo by Scott Bauer.

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