America’s favorite holiday flower is the poinsettia. To help you celebrate, here is a little of the rich and sadly bloody history of this alternately loved and reviled plant.
Do you prefer cyclamen as a holiday flower? Here is my post on growing cyclamen.
Poinsettia are from a Beautiful Area
Originally the species (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was native to the hills around present day Taxco, Mexico. The poinsettia was popular long before Christmas and Christianity.
Long ago (over 3000 years) this charming plant was brought off the hill sides and into cultivation, and subsequently seeds were traded throughout the warmer areas of what is now present day Mexico and Central America. It is now considered native to Mexico and Central America, but it didn’t start out that way. (Botanical studies of center of diversity reveal this – a dissertation topic for someone.)
One New Name
The original native name was lost when the Nahuatl speaking peoples came along. They called it cuetlaxochitl (que-tlax-o-chi-tl), and considered it a symbol of purity. Now considered to be “Aztecs” these invaders descended upon local peoples and enslaved many of them. They too fell in love with the vibrant and contrasting colors of the poinsettias and cultivated them widely through their lands. Before the invading Conquistadors destroyed the extensive Aztec Botanical Gardens just outside the Aztec capitol city, the poinsettias in bloom were one of the more popular show pieces of the gardens.
Another New Name
Spanish colonialism saw much slavery and a new language to (somewhat) supplant Nahuatl. The Spanish Christian priests discouraged the use of the “pagan” poinsettia and almost wiped out its cultivation. Then, in the Seventeenth Century, Franciscan priests built a mission near Taxco. They noticed the brilliant red flowers that bloomed in mid-winter, wild on the hillsides, but since it wasn’t considered medicinal they mostly ignored it.
When the locals used the flowers in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession, the canny priests began a story to explain the bright winter flowers. Their story goes that, “A little girl had nothing but a weed bouquet to offer at the church altar, but as she laid her humble gift down, it was changed into the brilliant Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.” The seeds were shared throughout Spanish mission system.
Still Another New Name
Poinsettia were “discovered” by North Americans after a wealthy Southern plantation owner was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829). Joel Poinsett sent some cuttings back to his plantation near Greenville, South Carolina where they were nurtured in his greenhouse, and shared with horticultural friends.
The poinsettia may have remained a flower for wealthy dilettantes with greenhouses, were it not for the hard work of a German immigrant to the USA, Albert Ecke and his family. In a real Horatio Alger story, the family migrated to California where they grew vegetables and sold them from push carts along Sunset Boulevard, working hard to make ends meet. Meanwhile, poinsettias had long since escaped from the Spanish missions and were growing wild, as weeds, on California hillsides. One Ecke son added some of the colorful “weeds” for sale to his cart. The blooms sold so well the family started raising fields of them. Ecke family greenhouses now cover 35 acres and distribute millions of cuttings annually to growers in over 50 countries.
Botany Nerd says – They aren’t flowers!
The poinsettia “flower” isn’t really a flower. The tiny green and yellow flowers are surrounded by colored leaves technically called bracts (comes from the same word that brackets comes from).
Editors note – botany aside, those bracts are what many think of as the “flowers.” For readers ease, I have referred to the whole combination of bracts and flowers as “flowers.”
Are Poinsettia Toxic?
Here is my YouTube video on “Are Poinsettia Poisonous.”
No Matter What You Call Them – Enjoy!
Bracts or flowers, the whole plant is a charming addition to home or office during the holiday season. You could save your poinsettia plants and get them to re-bloom next year – with a great deal of fussing and care. But new plants cost about the same as a bouquet of flowers (but much longer lasting) so just let the old ones go to the great compost heap in the sky, and get new ones next year.
Other Flowers You Can Grow
May I recommend my book? It says vegetable on the cover but many of them offer pretty flowers. The Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Guide offers not just growing guides but some of the latest varieties – including ones specifically for raised bed and container growing. Price is what you would pay on Amazon – only when you buy from me you get a signed copy!
From the review:
“In this updated 2nd edition of Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening, you’ll find much-needed advice and practical tips on growing an edible garden, no matter which part of the southwestern US you call home.
Growing in the Southwest isn’t easy. It’s either too hot or too cold and often very dry. The region hosts a range of soils and climate conditions that can be difficult for a gardener to navigate. That’s why this region-specific garden guide is a must-have for every Southwestern gardener!
Botanist Dr. Jacqueline Soule simplifies the ins and outs of gardening in the Southwest and serves as your guide to success. Regardless of whether you’re tending an in-ground plot, a small container garden, or a series of raised beds, Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening is an invaluable resource.”
Profits from the sale of this book via my book selling site go to the Arizona-based Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.
© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.
The author of this website has researched the edibility of the materials I discuss, however, humans vary in their ability to tolerate different foods, drinks, and herbs. Individuals consuming flowers, plants, animals or derivatives mentioned in this blog do so entirely at their own risk. The authors on this site cannot be held responsible for any adverse reaction. In case of doubt please consult your medical practitioner.