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Although people purchase and give millions of poinsettias each winter, not many know the plant's rich and 'colorful' history. Poinsettia's story spans centuries and contains fascinating twists and turns.
How did this non-native species work its way into popular culture to become one of the most celebrated of all U.S. plants? Its history can be traced back centuries to the ancient Aztecs. The plant is native to Central America where, in specific locations, it grows wild becoming as high as eight feet. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called ‘cuitlaxochitl’ (meaning ‘flower that grows in residues or soil’).
The Aztecs developed a variety of applications for the plant. For instance, the milky white sap (now called latex) was used medicinally to treat fevers. Its flowers were used to make red and purple dyes for clothing and textiles. And, according to legend, when he saw it, the Aztec Emperor Montezuma was so enchanted with the beautiful cuitlaxochitl that he had caravans of them shipped to his capital in what is now Mexico City.
Cuitlaxochitl and Its Xmas Connection
It was not until centuries later, in the 1700s, that the plant was incorporated into the Christmas tradition. Two events spurred this on. Franciscan monks in Mexico began using the shrub in their Nativity processions. Then, around the same time, another legend was born. It is recounted in, "Pepita and the Flowers of the Holy Night,” a Mexican story that links the festive plant to Christmas folklore.
Cuetlaxochitl Becomes Poinsettia
The plant's circuitous journey to the US was facilitated by Joel Roberts Poinsett. In 1828, as the first ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett saw the unfamiliar shrub and was captivated. Once he returned to the US, he cultivated the plant and began sharing it with friends at Christmas time--when the leaves turned red. Thus began a holiday tradition that continues to this day. Eventually, the plant was given its popular name of “Poinsettia,” after the man who is credited with bringing it to the United States.
1) Poinsettias (Report). Colorado State University Extension. November 2009. 7.412.
2) Seltzer, Erica D.; Spinner, Mary Anne. "Poinsettia Facts." The Poinsettia Pages. University of Illinois Extension.