Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Have you ever wondered why the poinsettia is considered by many to be "The Christmas Flower"? If it weren't for an observant U.S. ambassador, the poinsettia, or Euphorbia pulcherrima would have remained a plant of Mexican and Central American medicine and legend rather than the Christmas decoration it is in many homes today.
Traditionally, the Aztecs called poinsettias "Cuetlaxochitle." They used sap from the plant to control fevers, and the bright red bracts were a source of red dye. The plant grew wildly and flowered naturally in the short winter days in tropical highlands.
A Mexican legend tells of a poor girl named Pepita who had nothing to offer the Christ child at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin Pedro tells her that "even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes."
Pepita gathered a small bouquet of roadside weeds to take to church, and as she placed them at the nativity scene, they burst into brilliant red blooms. These blooms of Euphorbia pulcherrima were referred to as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night since they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
The name poinsettia is credited to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He was a physician by training, but had a passion for botany. In 1828 he spied Euphorbia pulcherrima growing along the roadside and took some cuttings to his greenhouse in South Carolina and shared the plants with family and friends. John Bartram of Pennsylvania was the first to offer Euphorbia pulcherrima commercially. Later historian William Prescott coined the name "poinsettia" in his book Conquest of Mexico in honor of Joel Poinsett. Though Joel led a successful career as a congressman and ambassador, plus founded the Smithsonian Institution, he is most known for the poinsettia. Congress declared December 12th as National Poinsettia Day in his honor.
More poinsettia information is available from U of I Extension at: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/poinsettia/index.html .