When you think of bright red and green poinsettias, you probably think of the winter holiday season. But did you know that the lovely poinsettia is the official birthday flower of December? Poinsettias are also called Christmas flowers and traditionally symbolize celebration, success, reassurance and good cheer.

Also known as the Mexican flame leaf, Christmas star, or lobster flower, the poinsettia is famous for its brilliant red “flowers” that make them a natural for holiday decorating. Actually, red poinsettia “flowers” aren’t flowers at all. They are large bunches of colored leaves at the top of the plant, called bracts. There are tiny flowers in the middle of the bracts, but they are very small and usually green or yellow.

Although red is the most common color of poinsettia, you can also find varieties with cream, yellow, peach, pink, and white and gold-splashed bracts.

Poinsettia in History

Poinsettia are native to southern Mexico and Central America and can grow up to 16 feet tall. The ancient Aztec Indians prized poinsettias and considered them a symbol of purity because of their brilliant red color. Centuries later, Mexico’s early Christians adopted the poinsettia as their prized “Flor de Noche Buena” or Christmas Eve flower.

In North America, the poinsettia plant was named after Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was a physician, politician, and the first U. S. ambassador to Mexico.

Dr. Poinsett lived in Mexico periodically from 1822 until 1830. During that period, he traveled to Taxco in southern Mexico and discovered the bright red and green native plant that would eventually be named after him. An avid amateur botanist, Dr. Poinsett sent samples of the plants home to the U.S. and by 1836 it had become commonly known as the poinsettia.

Poinsettia and Christmas

A Mexican legend explains how poinsettias came to be associated with Christmas. Apparently, a child who could not afford a gift to offer the Christ child on Christmas Eve picked some weeds from the side of a road. The child was told that a humble gift, if given in love, would be acceptable in God’s eyes. When the little girl brought the weeds into the church, they miraculously bloomed into the brilliant red flowers now known as poinsettia.

Fun Facts about Poinsettia

  • Recent research has shown that poinsettias are not poisonous, as many people believed.
  • For some people, star-shaped poinsettia bracts symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.
  • December 12th is celebrated as National Poinsettia Day to honor the death of Dr. Poinsett on December 12, 1851.

No matter how you celebrate the winter holiday season, chances are you will see festive red poinsettia just about everywhere you go. And if one of the places you go is to a birthday party for someone born in December, a poinsettia plant could be the perfect gift.