St. Louis’ Red Poinsettia

What? Could the ubiquitous, crimson-leafed hothouse plants that are synonymous with the holidays have roots there? This was something I had never heard of. It turned out that neither had the Missouri Botanical Garden nor the Missouri History Museum.

The only online authoritative reference I could find was a two-sentence entry at the United States Botanic Garden’s site under the Latin name Euphorbia Pulcherrima: This was the poinsettia that was grown in the United States and Europe up to 1920. Louis Bourdet, St. Louis, Missouri, first promoted it as the St. Louis red poinsettia in 1924.

That’s it. That’s it.

I began digging. Pat Bellrose, the Fahr Greenhouse & Garden Center owner in Wildwood, was eventually found. Bellrose, who is a self-described history nerd, said that the poinsettia, which is a Mexican native, has been crossed-pollinated and hybridized numerous times since being brought to the United States in the early 1800s. Louis Bourdet was a name he had never heard of. There are 1,500 to 1,800 varieties of this plant. Bellrose said that he had found the St. Louis red during his research.

Bellrose describes it so well that we wouldn’t recognize it today as a poinsettia. The bracts, which are the red structures we mistakenly consider to bloom but are modified leaves, were much smaller than today’s poinsettias. These bracts, which were small in size, were a very modest shade of red. He says, “This was a true red cardinal poinsettia.” “Maybe that’s how it got its name.”

David Trinklein is a professor of plant sciences under Bellrose. He isn’t sure. Trinklein claims that research on the St. Louis red is so murky that it’s impossible to be certain of anything other than its existence. The professor believes he can guess what happened to it. In the 1930s and 1940s, hybridization methods improved, increasing the popularity of the poinsettia, making it one the most popular crops in America. The trend was towards larger, more rounded red bracts. This new, more showy poinsettia may have dominated the spotlight if the St. Louis red was indeed the “it” Christmas plant of the 1920s.

Trinklein explains that when these varieties vanish, it’s because people don’t want to buy them anymore.