Besides all the Christmas decorations that are suddenly displayed in stores right after Halloween, the appearance of the poinsettia is a true sign that the holidays are on their way. So how did this crimson beauty join the leagues of mistletoe and holly as a symbol of Christmas?
The name poinsettia, coined by historian and horticulturist William Prescott, commemorates Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American minister to Mexico (1825-1828) and the person who introduced the plant into the United States. Poinsett was not only an accomplished statesman, he loved botany (and also studied medicine). He had his own greenhouses on his Greenville, S.C. plantation. In 1828, while he was visiting the Taxco area of Guerrero, Mexico, Poinsett was enchanted by the bright red blooms he saw along the road. He immediately sent some plants back to his home and began propagating them.
Once he had rooted cuttings, he began sending them to friends and botanical gardens around the world. The nursery world loved the plant and began selling it under the botanical name German botanist Carl Ludwig Willdenow had assigned it: Euphorbia pulcherrima (translated to “the most beautiful Euphorbia”).
Becoming a Christmas plant
Poinsettias naturally produce their brilliant colours at Christmastime, so the plants quickly began to be associated with Christmas celebrations around the world. It was a very popular Christmas potted plant even by the 1870s. Besides being called poinsettias, these plants are known as Mexican flame leaf, Christmas star, winter rose, Noche Buena (in Spanish representing Christmas Eve night), Cuetlaxochitle (in the Aztec Nahuatl language) and Stella di Natale (in Italy).
Poinsettias are originally native to the central and southern parts of Mexico where they grow as a shrub up to 16 feet. The brightly coloured “flowers” of poinsettias are really bracts, which essentially are modified leaves. The flowers are the small greenish-yellow structures called cyathia in the centre of the bracts.