Have you ever wondered why every year around this time, grocery stores are flooded with poinsettias? It would be strange to see them any other time of the year, but where do they come from, and why are they associated with Christmas?
As it turns out, the plant we know today as the poinsettia has a very interesting history! Native to an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco de Alarcón, the Aztecs used it for decorative purposes but also extracted a purplish pigment for dyeing textiles and used its milky sap to treat fevers. They called it “Cuetlaxochitl”, which means “flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure”. Cuetlaxochitl, with its blood red color, served as a reminder of the sacrifice the gods had made to create the universe, and the debt which would be repaid through human sacrifice.
In the 17th century, Franciscan missionaries settled in the Taxco area and incorporated the plant into their nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. Legend tells of the Franciscan friars celebrating Christmas with a lovingly decorated nativity scene. During the mass, as the Star of Bethlehem passed overhead, the leaves turned from green to bright red. The poinsettia, formerly a symbol of Aztec sacrifice, became a symbol of the blood of Christ and was quickly associated with the Christmas season.
Another legend tells of a girl named Pepita who was too poor to buy a gift to present to the Christ Child at Christmas Eve service. As she walked to the church, she was inspired by an angel to gather common weeds from the roadside, fashioning them into a small bouquet. When she entered the chapel and placed her humble bouquet of weeds at the foot of the nativity scene, crimson blossoms sprang forth and became beautiful poinsettias. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as Las Flores de Nochebuena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, as they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
The poinsettia eventually gained international popularity thanks to the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). The son of a French physician, Poinsett became the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but his real love in the scientific field was botany. He maintained his own greenhouses on his South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enthralled by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens around the United States. It became known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, recognizing the man who first brought it to the US.
In 2002, Congress honored Joel Poinsett by declaring December 12th as National Poinsettia Day which commemorates the date of his death in 1851. In Mexico, poinsettias are also displayed around December 12, which is the Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe.
So when you see the tell-tale red plants this year, think of their history and remember their symbolism, a beautiful reminder of Christ’s birth and sacrifice!