The gorgeous, vivid red and green plant known as the POINSETTIA has become a major adjunct to the other Christmas season decorations. In 2020, poinsettia sales topped an estimated $250 million. WOW! This proves the poinsettias importance in Christmas history and traditions, but how did it come to be?
POINSETTIAS are a stunningly beautiful tropical shrub native to Central America, specifically an area of Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon where they flower during the winter. The ancient Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl and considered them sacred. To the Aztecs, the plant symbolized purity and were a part of certain religious ceremonies. On a practical level, the Aztecs used the flowers to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics, and the milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers.
There are some hundred species of Euphorbia Pulcherrima, and in their natural habitat they can grow to a height up to fifteen feet. The upper leaves are often mistaken as flower petals, however the flowers are the small yellow buds in the center of the poinsettia. Correctly called bracts, the top cluster of leaves most commonly associated Christmas poinsettias are red, but naturally bloom in a variety of hues.
Until 1828, this lovely plant was a well kept secret from the rest of the world. The first US Ambassador to Mexico was a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828 he fell in love with the gorgeous plant. He immediately sent plants back to his plantation in South Carolina. The plants flourished, seeds were cultivated, and Poinsett generously gave plants to his friends and to botanical gardens.
One of those friends was John Bartram of Philadelphia, who revealed the plant at a flower show. It was there that a botanist named Robert Buist discovered them and proceeded to distribute them as cut flowers under their botanical name Euphorbia Pulcherrima (which means “most beautiful euphorbia”). By 1836, the scarlet flower was called Poinsettia after the Ambassador who originally brought them to America. Los Angeles and Hollywood areas of California were covered with poinsettias by the late 1880s.
In 1902, a German immigrant named Christoph Ecke settled with his family in Southern California, starting a dairy and plant farm near Hollywood. Fascinated with the poinsettia, Ecke turned his focus to cultivating the plant and within a few years was the main producer and distributor of poinsettias. Carried on by his son —who created new varieties of poinsettia— the Ecke farm lasted for nearly fifty years before the family sold the land.
Poinsettia and Christmas
Between the vivid red and green colors, and the plant “blooming” in winter, most historians agree that poinsettias were destined to wiggle their way into Christmas decor and tradition. There is also the perceived Christian symbolism where the shape of the leaves suggest the Star of Bethlehem, and the red leaves represent the shed blood of Christ.
Even better, there is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together—
There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. Her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up, saying, “Pepita, I’m sure that even the smallest, most humble gift, if given by someone who loves Him, will make Jesus happy.”
Encouraged by his words, Pepita picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed, but as she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers! Everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena or Flowers of the Holy Night.