New Orleanians always see poinsettias around Christmastime and associate the beautiful bright red flower with cold weather (or, at least, cold for Southerners) and the nostalgic feeling of knowing that Christmas is right around the corner. Though we are familiar with poinsettias, we rarely are told the history of them and how they relate to Christmas.
According to an article on WhyChristmas.com, poinsettias are a plant native to Central America, particularly to an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The Azetcs referred to poinsettias as cuetlaxochitl and used the flowers to make dye for clothes and cosmetics and used the flower's sap to help treat fevers.
Poinsettias were popularized and brought back to America by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first ambassador from America to Mexico, in 1825. While on a trip to Taxco in 1828, he discovered these flowers and became enamored with them. He brought some back, nourished them in his greenhouses, and sold them to his friends and botanical gardens in his native South Carolina.
John Bartram from Philadelphia was the first person to sell poinsettias under their Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means "the most beautiful Euphorbia." (Euphorbia is a family of plants named after an ancient Greek physician.) While poinsettias were generally sold as cut flowers, the Ecke family from Southern California started selling them as whole plants for landscaping. This family is still one of the primary producers of poinsettias in America today.
Poinsettias have a strong connection to Christmas. These flowers are special because they flourish during the wintertime, which is part of the reason why they are a Christmas favorite. Also, their shape is often believed to be a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Three Wise Men to Jesus just after his birth. The colors of this flower are also believed to symbolize different parts of Jesus: the red representing his blood and the white, his purity.
In addition, there is a Mexican legend involving Christmas and poinsettias, which, according to WhyChristmas.com, goes as follows:
There was a poor Mexican girl named Pepita who
couldn't afford a gift to lay at baby Jesus's altar for the Christmas Eve mass.
She picked a handful of weeds from the side of the road and formed them into a
bouquet, and, although she felt embarrassed that this was all she could offer,
she placed the makeshift bouquet in front of the nativity. And as she did that,
the weeds magically turned into a bouquet of bright red flowers, or poinsettias.
Everyone in the church believed that they had witnessed a miracle, and from
this point forward, these flowers were known as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
Poinsettias have had a long history and relationship with not only Christmas, but with the people who have come across them. Most anyone who has laid their eyes on these flowers has been struck by their colorful beauty.