How the Poinsettia Became the Official Plant of Christmas
The plant we all recognize today as the Poinsettia has a long, foreign and interesting history. Though many Christmas plants and flowers are associated with the American Christmas holiday, the beloved Poinsettia has some deep historical roots that might surprise you.
That lovely plant you place in your home every December was once used as a fever cure! A Central America native, the plant flourished in areas of Southern Mexico long before Christianity came to the Western Hemisphere. The ancient Aztecs found it blooming in the tropical highlands during the very short days of winter and named it “Cuetlaxochitl.” Not decorative at the time, the Aztecs used the plant for practical purposes, as they did with many elements of nature. They extracted purple dye from it for use in cosmetics, and its milky white sap (latex) was used to treat fevers.
This plant would’ve remained a regional plant were it not for Joel Roberts Poinsett. The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the first US Ambassador to Mexico by President Madison. Poinsett had graduated from medical school, but was a dedicated (almost obsessive) botany-lover. (Mr. Poinsett founded the institution known today as the revered Smithsonian). Poinsett maintained greenhouses on his Greenville, S.C. plantations. While visiting Mexico in 1828, he became enchanted by these brilliant red blooms; those he saw were of the “Cuetlaxochitl.” He immediately sent some plants home and began propagating and sending them to friends and botanical gardens. Poinsett’s good friend (and fellow botanist), Robert Buist, sold the plant as “Euphorbia pulcherrima” (which means beautiful) after noticing not only how vibrant and stunning the plant’s leaves and colors were, but he was befuddled by its power: the plant actually pushed its way through the cracks of his greenhouse floor! The Poinsettia name became the accepted name in English speaking countries as it was Poinsett who first saw and brought the plant to our country, and then cultivated it into smaller sizes (it grows as a tree in Mexico).
Today, the Christmas Poinsettia is known as such because it can be found naturally blooming/growing only for a short period of time around Christmas in Mexico. Thus, the “Christmas Poinsettia “was born; production and distribution has consistently grown since it was first discovered in the 1800’s. The Poinsettia is now one of the most important floricultural crops in the country, according to many professional botanists and The American Botanical Council. Total U.S. Poinsettia production was valued at $325 million in 1997*; and December 12th is now celebrated as National Poinsettia Day, marking the date of Poinsett’s death, celebrating his life and his discovery, and noting his unfathomable enjoyment of the lush plants. And, just as Poinsett would have it; the Poinsettia, whether white, red or pink, remains one of the most frequently sold and delivered Christmas Christmas decorations in America during the holiday season.
* Statistics according to Associated Content Make this holiday season bright and Christmas flowers, plants and decorations from ProFlowers. They make great gifts for friends and family, and a lovely addition to your own home decor.