They are simple and beautiful symbols of Christmastime—these plants with deep red leaves, contrasting with the green ones below–the colors of Christmas on full display. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrina) are native to mountainous regions of Mexico, and there are countless varieties with different shades of red, pink, and white available now.
But how did these tropical Mexican plants become such a popular part of Christmas in the United States? To understand that, we should go back to their long history of association with the holiday. Dating back to the 17th century, early missionaries to Mexico used the plant in nativity services. The legend of the “flor de noche buena” (flower of Christmas Eve) tells the story of a small, impoverished child who wanted to bring a gift to church in celebration of Christmas. An angel appeared to the child, saying they should gather weeds at the roadside and bring them to the altar. A miraculous transformation then occurred, in which the plants became a deep red and green plant—the poinsettia we all know and love. This story has long served as an object lesson in giving simply and from the heart, and is told every year at Christmas time.
While Mexicans refer to the plant as the flor de noche buena, it is known as cuetlaxochitl (star flower) in the Aztec language. Aztecs used the plant as a fever reducer, and for producing purple-red dye. Other Spanish-speaking countries typically refer to it as the Flor de Pascua (Christmas flower). The common name poinsettia came from Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. As a botanist, he was intrigued with the plant, and introduced it to the United States by sending cuttings back to America in the 1830’s.
Local nurseryman William Wendt is in his 29th year growing poinsettias in Santa Rosa County. He mentioned the poinsettia gets a bad rap as toxic to pets, telling me, “your cat would have to eat about 100 plants” to get dangerously sick. Botanically speaking, the red part of the plant is a bract, or modified leaf, while the actual flowers are the bright yellow parts in the center. While encouraging people to purchase and enjoy poinsettias through the holiday season, he did not recommend trying to plant them in the ground. They are cold sensitive and rarely grow well in our area except in a greenhouse. In tropical environments, however, poinsettias can grow into large bushes or small trees.