There are certain plants that play important and often mysterious roles in holiday traditions and celebrations all over the world. From the Egyptians who decorated trees during the winter solstice to the Pagans and Druids who used Mistletoe in their winter rituals, stories of ritualized plant use span continents and history and have become infused into the mythologies that span generations.
The poinsettia’s story is just as unique as the rest, and despite this celebrated plant’s prominence during the holiday season, its story remains largely unknown — until now.
The story of the poinsettia is one that spans hundreds of years and contains countless twists and turns as it wound its way into our holiday canon. Although it doesn’t pre-date Christianity like it’s Christmas counterparts, the holiday season wouldn’t be the same without the reds and greens of the poinsettia.
For us to begin, we have to go all the way back to 14th century where the plant had a long history of medicinal use in pre-Hispanic Mexico. It was said that its milky white sap, called latex, could be used to reduce fever symptoms. The plant was so highly prized in Aztec culture that “Cuetlaxochitl,” as the plant was known, was also used to create red and purple dyes for clothing and textiles. It is said that Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was so captivated by the plant that he would have caravans of poinsettias shipped to the capital city of Teotihuacan because the plants could not grow at the high altitude.
However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Cuetlaxochitl, now an established decorative plant in Mexican tradition, began its journey into Christmas traditions.
The journey began in the small town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico where Franciscan monks began using the shrub in their Nativity processions. Coincidentally, it is also around this time that the Mexican legend of Pepita and the ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’ began, forever tying the red and green shrub to Christmas folklore.
Pepita and the Poinsettia
As legend has it, a young girl named Pepita was traveling to her village to visit the Nativity scene at the chapel. Pepita did not have enough money to buy a present to give the baby Jesus at the services, however, and so she gathered a bundle of roadside weeds and formed a bouquet.
She was upset that she didn’t have more to offer, but she was reminded by her cousin that “even the most humble gift, given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” Upon entering the chapel and presenting her bouquet to the Nativity Jesus, the bouquet of roadside weeds miraculously turned into a bouquet of beautiful red flowers that the locals knew as Cuetlaxochitl.
Joel Roberts Poinsett
During this time, the poinsettia’s association with Christmas was almost entirely confined to small Mexican towns and their local folklore. It remained in relative obscurity for almost two hundred years before a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett would introduce it to the United States and forever change the way we decorate for the holidays.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was a man of many talents. He was not only the first person to introduce the poinsettia to the United States, but he was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and was also a skilled and passionate botanist who co-founded the institution that we now call the Smithsonian Institute.
During one of his diplomatic trips to Mexico in the winter of 1828 on behalf of President John Quincy Adams, he visited the Taxco area where he wandered the beautiful countryside and became enchanted by the brilliant red leaves of an unfamiliar plant. Poinsett had kept a greenhouse on his property in South Carolina and began shipping the blooms back to his home where he studied and carefully cultivated the plants.
It wasn’t long before he began sharing the plants among his friends and colleagues around Christmas time when the upper leaves of the shrub would turn red. The reputation of the enchanting Christmas plants spread and soon a Pennsylvania nurseryman by the name of Robert Buist began to cultivate poinsettias. Buist would be the first to sell the plant to the public under its botanical name of Euphorbia Pulcherrima, and played a large role in helping to establish the plants Christmas reputation.
It wasn’t until about 1836 that the plant formally attained its popular name of ‘Poinsettia’ after the man who first brought the plant to the United States and ignited a holiday tradition that continues to this day.
A National Phenomenon
In the early 1900’s the poinsettia began to gain in popularity on a wide scale, when Paul Ecke Sr. developed the first poinsettia plants that could be grown indoors in grow pots. He began selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, California, and in 1923 founded the Ecke Ranch that today provides the nearly 80 percent of the plants that are bought and sold in the country.
Today ,the poinsettia is the most popular plant sold during the holidays and the best-selling potted plant in the United States. Within a six-week period leading up to Christmas there are over 70 million poinsettias sold and nearly $250 million in poinsettia sales accounted for.
In July of 2002, the United States Congress created National Poinsettia Day on December 12th to honor the late Joel Roberts Poinsett who played a crucial role in making the poinsettia into the Holiday fixture that it is today.
If you enjoyed this story then make sure to read about The Curious KISStory of Mistletoe!