The Poinsettia, a Latin American flora, is used to decorate houses through out the world in readiness for Christmas. The history and lore behind this commonly known and celebrated “bloom”, though, is less known but adds an interesting tale to your Hispanic Culture and Christmas conversations. In this article we will discuss the history of the beautiful Poinsettia, its Latin American origins and how it became such a celebrated flower during the Christmas season.
The Poinsettia is the best known member of the diverse spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. The poinsettia is native to Mexico and Central America, where it grows in moist, wet, wooded ravines and on rocky hillsides. It was named for Joel R. Poinsett, who popularized the plant and introduced it to floriculture while he was U.S. minister to Mexico in the late 1820s. The botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. The plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning "very beautiful."
According to the historical records the Poinsettia began its claim to Christmas celebration rooted in Hispanic Culture when a poor child in Mexico wished to bring a gift to give to the baby Jesus. This child was too poor to afford a present. He was told that even a humble gift would be accepted by Jesus if it was given in love and from the heart. On Christmas Eve he went out and picked some weeds which he brought and placed upon the alter. When the blooms were placed upon the alter they bloomed from green to a bright red which was considered to be a miracle. From that day forward the were called Flor De La Noche Buena through out Mexico and eventually this spread to where now it is common not only amongst Hispanics but in many cultures around the world.
Poinsettias are shrubs to small trees, typically reaching a height of 0.6 to 4 m (2 to 16 ft). The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 7 to 16 cm (3 to 6 in) in length. The top leaves, known as bracts, are flaming red, pink, or white and are often mistaken as flowers. The actual flowers are the small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, which are called Cyathia. Cultivars have been produced with orange, pale green, cream and marbled leaves. There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias available, but 74% of Americans still prefer red poinsettias, 8% prefer white, and 6% prefer pink.
The Aztecs who spoke Nahuatl, the most widely-spoken group of Native American languages in Mexico or in North America, called the plant Cuitlaxochitl meaning excrement flower. This may be because birds would eat the seeds, and then they would appear to germinate from bird excrement. During the 14th - 16th century the sap was used to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravans because poinsettias could not be grown in the high altitude.
In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that poinsettias are toxic. The origin of this could be found in the fact that most plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic and also because the name of the plant seems to refer to the word poison. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf. While it is true that the plant is not very toxic, those sensitive to latex may suffer an allergic reaction and it is therefore not advisable to bring the plants into the home of sensitive individuals. If eaten, poinsettias may cause diarrhea and vomiting in animals and humans.
Now through out the world we celebrate this glorious flower for its wondrous color and glorious bloom which brightens our winter days with festive color. Originating from Hispanic Culture and the Mexican region we celebrate our Christmas with a gift from our Aztecan heritage. When you give the gift of a poinsettia this year, give the gift of the miracle and legends of the Poinsettia as well as the story of how this beautiful bloom became a staple in Holiday festivities. When gathered around with close friends and family, share the story of how the humble gift of a child so long ago, whether legend or truth, has touch all of us around the world when each year the green leaves of the Poinsettia bloom into the bright color of love, sacrifice and passion that is the real meaning of Christmas.