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How did a tropical plant become an unlikely symbol of the Christmas holiday? The history of the poinsettia, as it relates to Christmas, begins with an old Mexican legend and, later, a prominent American business venture. Discover the legend of the poinsettia!
You say poin-set-ee-uh, I say poin-set-uh—but let’s call the whole thing off because the name of the ubiquitous holiday plant can be pronounced either way.
America’s Favorite Holiday Flower
Aside from the Christmas tree itself, no plant symbolizes Christmas quite like the poinsettia. More than 2 million will be sold this year, making it the largest potted flower crop grown in the United States!
Over 100 varieties of poinsettias are available in shades of red, pink, white, and yellow—solids, streaked, marbled, and multicolored. It makes it hard to pick just one!
One year, I took advantage of an open house at a local wholesale grower’s greenhouse to view the estimated 40,000 plants they had ready to be shipped out to stores in my region.
Why Are Poinsettias the Christmas Flower?
In their native region of southern Mexico, poinsettias flower during the winter season. They are perennial shrubs that were once considered a weed and will grow 10 to 15 feet tall in the wild. The colored “flowers” are specialized leaves called bracts, while the actual flowers are inconspicuous beads found in the center of the bracts.
Long before European colonization, the Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl in the Nahuatl language (pronounced “kwet-la-sho-she” or “kwe-tla-so-cheetl”). They used the bracts to make a reddish-purple dye for fabrics and employed the sap in medicines to control fevers, skin conditions, and other ailments. Cuetlaxochitl was planted in gardens of the Aztec rulers and used as offerings in religious ceremonies.
Later, Spanish missionaries called the plant Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of the Holy Night), due to its resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem.
According to Mexican lore, a young child, Pepita, did not have a gift for the baby Jesus at a Christmas Eve service. She was penniless, so all she could do was pick a bouquet of weeds to offer. The angels felt compassion for her plight. So, after Pepita set the flowers at the crèche of the nativity on Christmas Eve, the angels transformed the weeds into beautiful red flowers. This is why red and green are the colors of Christmas today.
The Namesake of the Poinsettia
Now, the reason blazing red (and now pink, white, orange, plus combinations of these colors) poinsettias are the Christmas flower in the United States is an accidental discovery by Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851), an American statesman and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1828.
An amateur botanist, Poinsett saw the red flowers when visiting the Mexican town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero, shortly before he was thrown out of the country for trying to buy Texas from the Mexicans for a million dollars!
Poinsett was so impressed by the beauty of these plants that he sent cuttings back to his plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina, where they were propagated and called the “Mexican Fire Plant.” The plant was shared with botanical gardens and growers across the country.
Soon, the plants became popular across the U.S. and were renamed for Mr. Poinsett.
But the reason poinsettias became so popular is due to Paul Ecke and his inventiveness. Ecke, who lived in California, discovered a technique that caused seedlings to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. He began growing the plant in the tens of thousands for Christmas when other flowers were scarce.
To promote poinsettias as a Christmas plant, he sent the crimson-leaved plants to TV studios nationwide, including “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials.
The rest is history. Today, Poinsettias are the most popular Christmas plant and the best-selling potted plant in the United States and Canada, contributing over $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level. California remains the top U.S. poinsettia-producing state.
For over 150 years, December 12 was considered National Poinsettia Day to honor the day of Poinsett’s death in 1851. In 2002, an Act of Congress made it official.
How to Care for Poinsettias
To get off to a good start, protect your new plant from cold temperatures and chilling winds on the way home from the store. Remember that this is a tropical plant, so don’t leave it in a cold car while you run other errands.
At home, place it near a sunny window where it will get bright, indirect light for at least 6 hours a day. Keep it out of direct sun, though, which could fade the leaves. Avoid drafts, keeping temperatures between 65 and 70°F. Overwatering is a common cause of death, so water only when the soil is dry, and don’t let the plant sit in water. No fertilizer is needed while the plant is in bloom.