Mexico’s Traditional Christmas Flower

Photo: Expreso


Blush-red poinsettias have long been regarded around the world as the perfect companion to seasonal traditions and classic Christmas decorations.

Lesser known is the leafy, long-stemmed flowers’ far-flung history.

Called nochebuenas in Spanish (literally “holy night,” referring to Christmas Eve), the poinsettia has traveled across oceans and changed varieties more than 70 times within its centuries-old legacy.

The original flowers, however, came from Mexico.

The Mexica (Aztec) culture cultivated poinsettias in present-day Taxco and the surrounding valleys of Cuernavaca.

But the plants, called cuetlaxochitl in Náhuatl, were not of the bold red color that comes to mind these days.

Instead, the flowers were white with small petals and short frames.

The Aztec people adorned statues of their gods with the flowers.

The Mexica also grew poinsettia plants of the classically red shades, although the flowers were mostly used for their pigment to dye cotton cloths, rather than decorate religious offerings.

Poinsettias later came to the fertile soils of Xochimilco, where generations of botanists have cultivated the flowers for hundreds of years.

Much as they did with the piñata, Spanish Catholic missionaries in the 16th century adapted the Mexica tradition to their own religious celebrations, using the white and red flowers to garnish Christmas decorations.

Throughout Mexico today, the poinsettia has a special significance during the holiday because it was used to decorate Christian nativity scenes.

But despite the poinsettia’s deeply Mexican history, the flower’s stake hold on Christmas mostly began with their namesake Joel Roberto Poinsett, the U.S. minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830.

According to the story, Poinsett became enamored with the red and white flowers he saw ornamenting Taxco churches, so he sent some of the plants home to Charleston, South Carolina, during Christmas.

By 1836, the flowers became widely known in the United States as the poinsettia, and the original Latin name euporbia pulcherrima was even changed to poinsettia pulcherrima.

(Not to stop himself short, the botanist-diplomat is also the namesake of Poinsett Country, Arkansas, and South Carolina landmarks like the historic Poinsett Bridge in Greenville County and the Poinsett State Park in Sumter County).

Botanists worldwide have since bred the poinsettia plant into more than 70 varieties, including colors such as pale salmon and deep pink, as well as patterns like white rims with pink centers, or flecks of red and white pigment.

Today, millions of poinsettias are sold each year to adorn church halls, spruce up office spaces or decorate family homes around the Christmas season.

To keep poinsettias colorful and upright, you should water the flowers every three or four days.

If plants are left outside or on the roof, they should be watered every day.

If they are cut at the stems and properly nourished, poinsettias can be grown again to help ring in the next holiday season.

…Dec. 16, 2020

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