Poinsettia, The Patron Plant of Christmas
Pointing at you, poinsettia. The old Mexican legend of the plant, cool facts about its growth, and its history as an iconic Christmastime symbol.
By now, with our latest re-stock and our hamming it up on the gram, you’ve probably got your hands on a Poinsettia dipped pot. And if you haven’t, there is still time!
Anyway, if you live in America and have ever been grocery shopping around Christmastime, you’ve seen the poinsettia. It’s a humble little plant, whose “flower” is actually a special leaf turned red, and it’s usually dappled along the entryways of grocery stores in the winter months. In a plastic planter wrapped in colorful mylar sits this seasonal wonder, a symbol of Christmas. But what do we know about the poinsettia? For one, it is poisonous to cats and dogs. But, beyond that well-known factoid, what is the history of this yuletide plant?
While we may associate the poinsettia with cold weather, it is actually grown in wild deciduous tropical forests in very hot climates, mostly in South and Central America. What people often think of as a flower is actually a modified leaf, or bract, that changes colors later on in the plants life cycle. The leaf changes color via a process called photoperiodism, which basically means that in order to change color, they require at least 12 hours of total darkness per day (or night) for about a week. It’s a pretty funky reverse photosynthesis thing that sounds kind of magical.
The poinsettia is actually native to Mexico, where it is called it's original name, the “Flor de Noche Buena.” Literally meaning, Flower of the Good Night, or Christmas Eve Flower. It’s been around for a while. Long ago, the Aztecs used the Poinsettia for dyes and as a medicine to reduce fevers. And, it wasn’t until the 16th century in Mexico, that the plant became associated with Christmas. Here lies the legend of the Poinsettia:
One Christmas Eve, everyone was bringing gifts and offerings for the Celebration of Jesus’ birthday a.k.a. Christmas. One little girl, commonly referred to as Maria or Pepita, was too poor to bear gifts and had nothing to offer. Upon consulting an angel who suggested that she pick some plants from here and there, she gathered up an armful of weeds from the roadside, and brought them to lay at the church altar. From the plain green foliage, flowered miraculous crimson blossoms, thus creating the Flor de Noche Buena.
Our name for the plant, poinsettia, wasn’t adopted until 1825, when the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, introduced the plant to the states. Joel was pretty badass. He traveled a lot, contended serfdom, and was a huge supporter of The Monroe Doctrine, which was a US policy dedicated to opposing European colonialism in the Americas. Yeah, he was pretty tight. If the beautiful, magical, Flor De Noche Buena were to be re-named after any North American policy maker, it was good to have been him.
Thus, in the spirit of Christmas, let us respect our neighbors and celebrate darkness for all of the colors it magically blooms.