Poinsettias The Horticultural History of the Christmas Plant
Poinsettias, with their ruby-colored, star-shaped leaves, are ubiquitous holiday decorations during the
Christmas season. Sales of the plant, which is native to Mexico, run more than $200 million a year, with the bulk of those sales made during the month of December.
But what does this pretty little plant — falsely rumored to be poisonous — have to do with Christmas? Some say the star-shaped leaves of the poinsettia symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. According to the Christmas story, the Star of Bethlehem led the three wise men to the manger where the baby Jesus was born.
Another Christmas connection for the poinsettia is linked to the plant’s Mexican origin. First discovered by the early Aztecs, the poinsettia has long been associated as an Indian symbol of purity. When the Spanish conquistadors conquered Mexico and converted the Aztecs to Christianity, the power of the poinsettia was also transformed.
Mexican legend tells of an impoverished girl, who had nothing to offer on the alter to Jesus at Christmas Eve other than weeds. Encouraged nonetheless by her priests to give of her spirit, she brought the weeds to her church. Once inside, the weeds miraculously blossomed into a beautiful poinsettia plant. In Mexico, the poinsettia plant is called Flores de Noche Buena, Spanish for “flowers of the holy night”.
It was in the early 1800s that the plant was given its English name, after Joel R. Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800s. Poinsett was the first to bring the plant to U.S. soil, having transplanted cuttings from the red beauty back to his home state of South Carolina.
In the early 1900s, the state of California began cultivating the poinsettia for indoor markets. The family of the original producer, Albert Ecke, is still the leading cultivator of the plant, although poinsettias are now grown and sold in all fifty states.
While many people mistakenly think that this Christmas-time symbol is poisonous, countless studies have disproven that notion.