By SANDRA ELAINE CONSTANTINE
Come Christmas in Mexico, you see them everywhere, the brilliant red leaves of the poinsettia, the nation’s unofficial holiday bloom.
Indigenous to Mexico, the plant was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by the country’s then-diplomatic envoy to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett.
Known in Mexico as the flor de noche buena (Christmas Eve flower), it was later referred to as the poinsettia in recognition of Poinsett having brought it across the border.
In Mexico, it has been associated with Christmas since the 16th century, when the legend emerged that a young girl who was too poor to buy a present for her family was told by an angel to gather weeds and place them before a church altar. Some of those leaves turned red, according to the story.
By the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico had begun including the flower in their annual Christmas decorations.
The red star-shaped leaves, they believed, symbolized the Star of Bethlehem and the blood from Christ’s crucifixion.
The Aztecs used the plant for red dye and medicine.
The poinsettia has a very undeserved reputation as being highly toxic, dating back to an urban legend that a child who ate the leaves died from poisoning. There is no evidence to back up this story.
However, touching the plant can cause an allergic reaction in some people. And eating the plant can cause diarrhea, while eye contact to the flower’s sap can, in some cases, cause temporary blindness.
In the wild, the poinsettia can grow to a height of anywhere from two to 13 feet.
For its leaves to turn red, the poinsettia must be exposed to 12 hours of darkness for five days in a row. It should then be exposed to lots of light to help the plant maintain its bright colors.
The poinsettia grows wild in deciduous tropical forests at mid elevations in southern Sinaloa and can also be found along the Pacific coast as far south as Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in dry forests in Guerrero and Oaxaca.
Some Mexicans like to keep their poinsettias past Christmas in order to get their leaves to turn red the next holiday season, but the process is so involved most people simply opt to buy new plants every Christmas since they are inexpensive.