November 27, 2015
A few days ago we took a little drive outside of Antigua to buy Poinsettias to get our house and office ready for the upcoming Holiday season. It was unbelievably dreamy to walk amongst the thousands of stunning colorful plants for sale at one of Guatemala’s main Poinsettia producers.
Native to Central America and Mexico with their subtropical climates, the beautiful plants have a fascinating history that begins with an ancient civilization. The Aztecs found it blooming in the tropical highlands during the very short days of winter and named it “Cuetlaxochitl.” They used the plant for decorative and practical purposes. They extracted a reddish-purpilish dye from the plant’s bracts for use in textiles and cosmetics, and its milky white sap (latex) was used to treat fevers.
The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant for many years to come had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett. The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829) by President Madison. Poinsett had also attended medical school, but his real love in the scientific world was botany. (Mr. Poinsett also founded the Smithonian Institution.)
During a visit to the Taxco area of Mexico in 1828, he was captivated by the stunning red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to his plantations in South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sharing them with friends, fellow botanists, and botanical gardens around the world. The plant was later christened the ‘poinsettia’ in honor of the first American to discover it, and in 1836 the US Congress declared December 12 National Poinsettia Day to commemorate the death of Joel Poinsett.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where a popular folk legend tells of a girl, usually called Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus‘ birthday and was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night/Christmas Eve Flower, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season. It is believed to have been used as a Christmas decoration as early as the 17th century when Franciscan monks near Taxco, Mexico incorporated the plant into their Nativity processions.
Now, through hybridization there are over 100 varieties and more than 500 million are sold globally each Holiday season. Their colors range beyond the traditional, red, pink, cream and white plants to pastel yellow, orange, pale green, or marbled and dramatic bi-color variants. With the introduction of long-lasting cultivars, and numerous beautiful colors, the popularity of the poinsettia has grown considerably around the world over the years. Like the Bougainvillea, what many think are flowers, are, in fact, colored bracts or leaves. The actual flowers are grouped within the small yellow structures in the center of each leaf bunch and are called cyathia. In Guatemala, where millions are produced and shipped around the world, they are also known as Pascuas (Christmas Flower) and now we have over 20 beautiful plants bringing Holiday cheer to our home and office…my new favorite: Plum Pudding