I love poinsettias. Red, green, or white, it doesn’t matter; although I do prefer the red. This year I have a small red one as a center piece on the dining room table, as well as a large floor plant.
Poinsettias are not native to the United States, but originate in southern Mexico and Central America where they “flower” in the winter. Actually, they aren’t flowers at all, but special leaves called bracts. The Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl and used the flowers to make purple dye for cloth and cosmetics. They made fever medicine from the milky white sap we know as latex.
Joel Roberts Poinsett is credited for originally bringing poinsettias to the United States in 1828. Poinsett was appointed the first US ambassador to Mexico in 1825 and shipped the plant back to his plantation greenhouses in South Carolina where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens as gifts.
One of those friends, John Barroom of Philadelphia, gave a plant to his friend, Robert Buist. Buist sold the plant under its botanical or Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”. Once it became known in the mid-1830s that Ambassador Poinsett was the one to introduce the plant to the country, people began referring to it as a poinsettia.
One version of how poinsettias became linked with Christmas can be told through an old Mexican legend: “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, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita,’ he said. ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus happy.’ Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and 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’.”
Another interpretation, one I’ve heard many times over the years, is this: the shape of the flower represents the Star of Bethlehem, the red color the blood of Christ, and the white leaves purity.
For more fun facts on Christmas traditions, go to www.whychristmas.com/customs.