"Christmas Flower" Has Rich
History and Day Set Aside For Honor
by: Bobby McDonald
When we're shopping for Christmas and busy with all of the activities associated with the Christmas season, few of us know that the "Christmas Flower," the poinsettia, has a rich heritage and its very own day of honor. However, most of us wouldn't spend a holiday without noticing the beauty of the plant that is a favorite during the season.
The poinsettia is really a small tree or shrub, that bears dark green dentate leaves. The top leaves, known as bracts, come in a variety of colors from flaming red, to pink, white, and even shades of purple and blue. The actual flowers on the plant are the small yellow structures found in the center of the plant, which are called Cyathias.
Poinsettias have gotten a "bad rap." There is a common misconception that poinsettias are toxic. The origin of this could be found in the fact that most plants of the same genus are indeed toxic and the name of the plant seems to refer to the word poison. If eaten, the leaves of the poinsettia plant might cause vomiting and diarrhea, but the plant is not toxic.
And, speaking of the history of the plant, the Aztec Indians called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitl," and during the 14th- 16th centuries, they used the sap of the plant for medicinal purposes to control fevers, as well as using the bracts to make a red dye. Word is that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec Kings in Mexico, would have the plants brought to his castle in Mexico City, in caravans to decorate the castle, because he loved their beauty so.
America's affection for the plant began when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, was appointed by President Andrew Jackson, in the 1820's. At the time of Poinsett's appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war and because of his interest in botany, the American elm tree was introduced to Mexico. During his stay in Mexico, he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828, he found a beautiful shrub with red flowers, growing next to the road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Poinsett introduced the beautiful plant to the American public and the favorite bears his name as the "poinsettia."
National Poinsettia Day is observed each December 12, on the aniversary of Poinsett's death, December 12, 1851.
The poinsettia plant has a notable legend in Mexico, its native land. Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, who had no gift to present to the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services, found herself saddened. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin, Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy.
Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioned them into a small bouquet, as her gift. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt even more saddened at her humble gift and fought back the tears as she entered the small village chapel. She approached the altar and placed the boquet at the foot of the nativity and the weeds suddenly burst into blooms of brilliant red. All who saw them was sure they witnessed a Christmas miracle, before their very eyes. From that day forward, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, and the common name is the poinsettia!
Poinsettia cuts ready to be planted at Powell Nursery Farm in New Summerfield, Texas.
Growing Poinsettias, before they are exposed to hours of darkness to turn the bracts to the desired colors.
Poinsettias ready for shipment across the U.S.
During the hustle and bustle of this year's Christmas season, take time to pause and enjoy the beauty of the poinsettia and share the rich traditions associated with the plants.
Poinsettias used in the elaborate decorations at Nashville's Opryland Hotel.