Poinsettias have come to be the Christmas flower in North America, but the origins of the plant is actually Mexico. Records of this holiday plant go back as far as the Aztecs who believed the plant represented purity, a notion still held today. The Aztecs called the plant ‘cuetlaxochitl’ and used the plant to make dye, medicine and cosmetics.
It was not until 1828 that the poinsettia was introduced to North America. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S Ambassador to Mexico, sent some of these plants back to his South Carolina plantation while on a visit to Southern Mexico. Poinsett was the first person to grow the cuetlaxochitl within the U.S. He gave these out as gifts to his friends. A friend of his from Pennsylvania passed on the plant to another friend of his, Robert Buist, who became the first person to sell poinsettias in the U.S.
The combination of poinsettias and Christmas does not have its origins within the U.S. There is a Mexican legend that a young girl named Pepita was walking to Christmas Eve services and she was upset because she could not afford a gift for the baby Jesus. A friend assured her that even a small gift, given in love would make the baby Jesus happy.
In this spirit she picked a handful of weeds along the side of the road and woven them into a bouquet. When she laid the bouquet at the base of the nativity scene the weeds burst into color. The bouquet changed to bright red flowers, known today as poinsettias. It was for this miracle that the plant was thus called ‘Flores de Niches Buena’, Flowers of the Holy Night (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/poinsettia.shtml).
DID YOU KNOW…?
In Mexico, the poinsettia shrub can grow to be 10 to 15 feet tall.
December 12th is National Poinsettia Day, in honor of the death of Joel Poinsett. He died in 1851, 23 years after he introduced the poinsettia to the U.S.
Poinsettias are not considered a Christmas flower in all countries. In Spain the plant is called “Flor de Pascua”, “Easter Flower”.
The week of Christmas, San Diego hosts the annual Poinsettia Bowl.