Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, especially an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon where they flower during the winter. The ancient Aztecs called them “cuetlaxochitl”, and they had many uses for them, including using the flowers (actually special types of leaves known as bracts rather than being flowers) to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics, and the milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers.
It is said that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was so captivated by the plant that he would have caravans of poinsettias shipped to the capital city of Teotihuacan because the plants could not grow at the high altitude. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Cuetlaxochitl, now an established decorative plant in Mexican tradition, began its journey into Christmas traditions. This part of the journey began in the small town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico where Franciscan monks began using the shrub in their Nativity processions. Coincidentally, it is also around this time that the Mexican legend of the “Flowers of the Holy Night” began, forever tying the red and green shrub to Christmas folklore.
The poinsettia was made widely known around the world because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett (that’s why we call them, not by chance, Poinsettia). He was the first Ambassador from the USA to Mexico in 1825. He had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. So he immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing them and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) on engraving from 1834.
At the first Philadelphia flower show, Robert Buist, a plants-man from Pennsylvania saw the flower and he was probably the first person to have sold the poinsettias under their botanical, or latin name, name “Euphorbia pulcherrima”, which means “the most beautiful Euphorbia”. They were first sold as cut flowers, and it was only in the early 1900s that they were sold as pot plants. It is believed that they became known as Poinsettia in the mid 1830s when people found out who had first brought them to America from Mexico.
The plant is also known as “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night” (Flores de Noche Buena) and, not by chance, the legend related to this favorite Christmas flower is Mexican too. However, there are two versions of the story: in one, the two children of the story are known as Maria and her little brother Pablo, while in the other two cousins are mentioned by the names of Pepita and Pedro.
But, whatever be their names, the story goes like this:
There was once a brother-sister pair who was very poor. They lived in a village and they had barely enough to eat two meals a day. As the Christmas time approached, festivities, parades and parties in the village attracted the children, and the gaiety of the season in itself was quite charismatic. Moreover, a large manger scene was being set up in the village church and all the children were eager to go to Baby Jesus and give him the best present. Maria and Pablo also wanted to give expensive presents to the Holy Child but, while all children were discussing about what they think is best for the baby and what they will buy as the gift for Him, Maria and Pablo knew that they had no money to buy the presents and had nothing that they could gift to the child.
Yet, they could not let go of the temptation to see the baby just once and give something to Him.
On Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church a little earlier than others to attend the service. Since they had nothing to give to the child, they thought of plucking some weeds that was growing along the roadside to make a soft bed for Baby Jesus and decorate his crib. While they were still decorating the crib of the Baby, other children also arrived, who were very cruel and started to teasing and making fun of them. Mario and Pablo were almost in tears for shame and helplessness when a miracle occurred: suddenly, the weeds burst into bright red petals that looked like stars and were so beautiful that everyone was awed by their beauty. Everybody realized that a gift of love is dearer to Jesus than the most expensive presents that money could buy. Ever since then, Poinsettia flowers have become favorites for Christmas decorations.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ, and the white leaves represent his purity.
The Poinsettia is also the national emblem of Madagascar.