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History of Poinsettia | The flower of Christmas

History of Poinsettia | The flower of Christmas

Some plants have an unknown but significant significance in holiday festivities across the globe. From the Egyptians decorating trees around the winter solstice to the Pagans and Druids using mistletoe in their winter rituals, stories of ritualized plant use have spread across continents and through history, becoming part of mythologies that have been passed down from generation to generation.

The poinsettia has a history that's just as unique as any other plant. The history of this beloved plant, which is often in the spotlight throughout the winter holidays, has been primarily unknown until recently.

The poinsettia narrative spans hundreds of years and involves innumerable twists and turns as it weaves its way into our Christmas canon. The poinsettia, though not as ancient as other Christmas symbols, nonetheless adds a splash of colour and joy to the season.

Cuetlaxochitl: the origin of the poinsettia

To get started, we need to go back to 14th-century Mexico. There was a long history of herbs being used for medical purposes. Its creamy white sap, known as latex, has been said to be effective in treating fever. Because of its great value in Aztec society, "Cuetlaxochitl," as the plant was called, was also utilized to make crimson and purple dyes for fabrics and garments. It is said that Montezuma, the last ruler of the Aztecs, loved poinsettias so much that he had caravans of them brought from lower elevations to Teotihuacan, the Aztec capital.

Despite its widespread use as an ornamental plant in modern Mexico, Cuetlaxochitl didn't make its way into the country's Christmas celebrations until the 17th century.

Franciscan monks first used the bush in their Nativity processions in the Mexican town of Taxco de Alarcon. At the same time, the Mexican tradition of Pepita and the "Flowers of the Holy Night" grew, making the red and green shrub an even more important part of Christmas history.

Pepita and the Poinsettia

According to local mythology, a little girl called Pepita was on her way to her town to see the Nativity display at the church. Pepita did not have enough money to purchase a gift to give the baby Jesus at the ceremonies, so she collected a bundle of wayside weeds and made a bouquet.

She was angry that she didn't have anything to donate, but her cousin reminded her that "even the simplest gift, given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes." She brought a bouquet of wayside weeds inside the church to offer to the Nativity Jesus, and the weeds transformed into the lovely red flowers the people called Cuetlaxochitl.

The namesake of the Poinsett

During this period, the poinsettia's connection to Christmas was nearly totally localized to Mexican villages and traditions. Joel Roberts Poinsett brought it to the United States after it had languished in obscurity for over two centuries. This innovation revolutionized the way we adorn our homes for the winter holidays.

Joel Roberts Poinsett was a multitalented individual. Not only did he bring the poinsettia to America, but he also served as the country's first ambassador to Mexico and was instrumental in establishing the Smithsonian Institution.

Poinsett went on a diplomatic mission to Mexico in the dead of winter in 1828 on behalf of President John Quincy Adams. While in the Taxco region, he took a stroll around the picturesque countryside and was mesmerized by the strange plant's vibrant crimson leaves. Poinsett cultivated flowers in a greenhouse on his South Carolina property, and he started sending them to his New York City residence. There he took a deep interest in plant life and meticulously nurtured it.

Shortly after, over the holiday season, he started giving the plants as gifts to his friends and coworkers. At this time, the shrub's top leaves would begin to turn a vibrant shade of crimson. When word got out about these magical Christmas plants, a nurseryman named Robert Buist in Pennsylvania decided to start growing them. Known scientifically as Euphorbia Pulcherrima, Buist would be the first to market the plant to the general public. He also did a lot to make the factory known for its Christmas decorations.

In honor of the man who introduced the plant to the United States and started a holiday custom that continues to this day, the plant was officially given the common name of "Poinsettia" in about 1836.

A national phenomenon

The poinsettia's rise to fame occurred in the early 20th century. Indoor poinsettias were initially created by Paul Ecke Sr., who used grow pots to let the plants flourish in colder climates. In Hollywood, California, he started selling them from a roadside kiosk. He established the Ecke Ranch in 1923, which now supplies about 80% of the plants sold commercially in the United States. The poinsettia has become the best-selling potted plant in the United States and the most often purchased holiday plant worldwide. About $35 million in poinsettias and about $250 million are made in sales in the six weeks of Christmas.

The 12th of December was officially designated as National Poinsettia Day by the United States Congress in July 2002. Observing this day would be a fitting way to remember Joel Roberts Poinsett, whose efforts were instrumental in establishing the poinsettia as a traditional part of the Christmas season.

Wrapping Up

Poinsettias are undeniably beautiful and cheerful wintertime ornaments. In reality, these bright leaves are not flowers but rather a Central American endemic to southern Mexico. Why do we call them that if they aren't Christmas flowers?

The ancient Mexican folklore of the poinsettia's connection to the winter holiday is the tradition's origin. Pepita, a little girl, was disappointed because she did not bring a present to the Christmas Eve ceremonies to give to the newborn Jesus. Her relative comforted her by saying that Jesus would be grateful for even the tiniest gift she could give him. 

Pepita grabbed a bouquet of weeds she saw on the way to church since she did not have enough money to purchase a decent present. (Some tale variants include an angel appearing to her and telling her to gather the vegetation.) When she arrived, the weeds were still at the base of the nativity scene. The weeds suddenly bloomed into vibrant crimson blooms. That's the reason why red and green are traditional Christmas colours.

Author - Stephen Crowther

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