December 12th, 2022

Poinsettia by Christmas Tree

A Symbol of Holiday Cheer

Poinsettias are a Holiday staple and make a great addition to any home during the Holiday season. This beautiful plant comes in a variety of colours but the most popular are red, white, and pink. Associated with Christmas since the 16th century these plants have been bred and cultivated to produce the huge red leaves that we are used to today.  Did you know? Poinsettias are the most commercially important potted plant in the world because of their endearing association with the December holiday season. But how did this warm-weather shrub native to western Mexico become so closely associated with Christmas?

The History of Poinsettias

The original Nahuatl name for the plant we call “poinsettia” is cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-shee) or cuetlaxochime (plural form) was cultivated by the Aztecs long before the European colonization of the Americas. The Aztecs used cuetlaxochitl for a variety of purposes, including decoration and the production of red dyes, as well as for medicines derived from the plant’s milky white sap. In 1828, cuetlaxochitl was brought to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the appointed U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. After successfully cultivating the unique plant in his South Carolina greenhouse, Poinsett began sharing the plant with friends and colleagues who marveled at the plant’s colorful transformation during the holiday season. A nursery owner in Pennsylvania named Robert Buist was the first to sell the plant to the public under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. However, less than a decade after being introduced to the United States, cuetlaxochitl came to be known by its most enduring name: poinsettia, after the man who first appropriated the plant from Mexico. Poinsett is celebrated for introducing the poinsettia to the United States and for co-founding the Smithsonian Institution. However, his legacy as a slave owner and his role in the displacement of countless Native Americans has led some people today to reject the name “poinsettia” in favor of the plant’s Native name, cuetlaxochitl. In 2002, the United States Congress designated December 12 as “National Poinsettia Day,” the anniversary of Joel Poinsett and acknowledging both the economic importance of the plant and the close cultural ties between the United States and Mexico.

White Poinsettias

Cultural Significance

Officially dubbed the “Flower of Christmas” or “Flores de Noche Buena”, there’s no denying that the sight of its bright, full blooms can fill up the room with joy. But why do we associate the Cuetlaxochitl with Christmas? The reason we associate poinsettias with the holidays comes from an old Mexican legend. A young girl named Pepita was sad that she didn’t have a gift to leave for the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin tried to comfort her and said that Jesus would love any present from her, even the smallest one. With no money to buy a real gift, Pepita picked a bouquet of weeds that she walked past on the way to church. (Other versions of the story say an angel came to her and instructed her to pick the plants.) When she got there, she left the weeds at the bottom of the nativity scene. All of a sudden, the weeds transformed into beautiful red flowers. This is why Christmas colors are red and green.

Learn to care for Poinsettia/Cuetlaxochitl here.