La Buena Noche: The new world Christmas symbol


In 1825, the United States’ first ambassador to Mexico and talented botanist, Joel Robert Poinsett, visited Taxco, in Mexico. There he found beautiful plants growing along the hillsides. He brought some home to Greenville, South Carolina and then passed some on to other botanists and nurseries.

Around 1850 the plant was finally sold at Christmastime. An American named it “Euphorbia poinsettia,” and the Poinsettia inserted itself into the American Christmas tradition. The scientific name is actually “Euphorbia pulcherima.” A German taxonomist had named it seventeen years earlier. However, “Poinsettia” stuck as the common name.

While the poinsettia was new to us, it had been a traditional symbol for both the Aztecs and the Incas. The Aztecs called it “Cuetlaxochitl,” which has been translated in two ways; either “flower with leather petals,” or “flower that grows in residues or soil (cuitlatl=residue and xochitl=flower). Regardless, the poinsettia represented the new life that warriors attain in battle. The Incas in Chile and Peru called it the “Crown of the Andes.”

The poinsettia was known as early as the 16th century to Spanish missionaries. During this time, a tale began to unfold of a poor young girl that couldn’t provide a gift to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. An angel told her to gather weeds and place them at the altar. The weeds’ leaves turned full and bright red, becoming the poinsettia. The star-shaped leaf pattern symbolized the Star of Bethlehem.

By the 17th century Franciscan friars had begun to include them in their nativity procession, called the “Fiesta de Santa Pesebre.” In the United States the poinsettia has become one of the most important crops grown for ornament. The majority of poinsettias are sold over the Christmas season, resulting in sales of over $220 million dollars per year.

Poinsettias are commercially grown in all fifty states. Texas has over 700 poinsettia producers. It was a Californian, Paul Ecke, who figured out how to artificially turn the poinsettias to their distinctive red color. This started the viable commercial production of the plants, and has made the U.S. a major exporter of poinsettias, as ninety percent of all poinsettias grown in this country are exported.

Poinsettias come in all colors, from the distinctive red to pink, yellow, and white and various combinations. In the sub-tropical regions of Mexico, where temperatures are mild, the poinsettia is a deciduous flowering shrub that can grow up to 10 feet tall.

The leaves of the poinsettia rely on a process called “photoperiodism” to know when to turn colors. This means the leaves and flowers of a plant are dependent on the length of day and night to signal bloom time. Poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning that they require longer nights (at least 12–14 hours) for their leaves to turn color. A pigment in the leaves, called Phytochrome, is what allows the leaves to tell the duration of darkness.

The actual poinsettia flowers sit in the center of each leaf bunch, and are small and yellow. They are called “cyathia.” Poinsettias are non-toxic to humans and pets. This includes both the leaves and the sap. A child would have to eat between 500-600 leaves in order to do major damage. However, they can cause diarrhea and vomiting. The sap is a latex, so people with latex allergies should stay away from poinsettias.

Poinsettias have a forever place in our culture. Dec. 12 is National Poinsettia Day. They even have an NCAA Bowl Game named after them–the Poinsettia Bowl, which is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 23rd this year. It will be the San Diego Naval Academy versus someone from the Mountain West conference. El Camino Real Master Naturalists: Little River Basin Master Gardeners:

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