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One of the most popular holiday flowers, poinsettias are loved for their vivid red and green colors, getting us into the festive spirit. Have you ever wondered how they became the traditional Christmas flower? Here’s what to know about their rich cultural history, symbolic meanings and practical uses today.
About the Poinsettia
Native to the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America, poinsettias are the ornamental plants of the Euphorbiaceae family. Botanically, they’re called Euphorbia pulcherrima that means the most beautiful Euphorbia. In their homeland, they’re known as the painted leaf, or the Mexican flame flower. However, these flowers were named after the botanist Dr. Joel Poinsett who popularized them in the U.S.
Unlike other plants whose color comes from their flowers, poinsettias boast large, red bracts. What seem to be petals are modified leaves, which surround their insignificant, beady flower clusters. Red is the most popular variety, but poinsettias can also be found in pink, white, striped, marbled and mottled bracts with dark green foliage.
It’s said that poinsettias drop their bracts and leaves soon after the flowers, also called cyathia, shed their pollen. As tropical plants, they grow in warm climates up to 10 feet tall. Even though they bloom during the winter months, they aren’t frost-tolerant. Still, you can grow them indoors or in greenhouses if you’re living in the North.
- Interesting Fact: For centuries, Poinsettias had a bad reputation for being poisonous—but there’s no evidence that they’re unsafe to be grown at home. Still, these plants have a milky sap that can cause stomach upset and skin rashes.
Why Are Poinsettias the Christmas Flower?
It all started with an old legend in 16th-century Mexico. A peasant girl named Pepita wanted to celebrate the Holy Night, but she was poor and didn’t have a gift to offer at the church ceremony. So, she gathered some weeds from the roadside on her way to the church and tied them into a bouquet. When she presented her gift, the weeds miraculously turned into colorful red and green poinsettias.
The plant became popular in the United States when Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico saw it. Upon visiting the Mexican town of Taxco, Guerrero, he saw the plant with blazing red leaves. He was impressed by their beauty, so he grown them in his greenhouse at his home in South Carolina.
He also sent them as gifts to his friends and shared them with gardeners and botanical gardens across the country. Poinsettias didn’t become a traditional holiday decoration until Paul Ecke, an American plant grower, grown them during the Christmas season. To promote the plants, he sent them to TV studios across the U.S. and the rest is history.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Poinsettia Flower
Apart from their legendary history, poinsettias have gained significance across cultures and regions. Here are some of their symbolic meanings:
- Good Cheer and Merriment – It’s safe to assume that these flowers have become associated with holidays because of their festive colors and shape. In Peru, they’re called as the Crown of the Andes, while in Spain they’re the Flor de Pascua or the Easter flower.
- A Symbol of Purity – For some, the brilliant color of poinsettias makes them a representation of purity. For the Aztecs, these blooms were sacred, and their nectar was even drunk in hopes of gaining immortality. In the past, it also represented the new life of warriors who died in battle.
- Love and Good Wishes – Poinsettias are sometimes seen as the representation of good wishes, since Joel Poinsett, the ambassador who discovered the plant, initially shared them with his family, friends and other plant growers. This makes it a perfect gift to give at Christmas.
- In some cultures, the plant represents the Star of Bethlehem, due to its star shape. They’re called the La Flor de la Nochebuena that translates to the Flower of the Holy Night, referring to the Christmas Eve.
Uses of Poinsettia Flower Throughout History
Apart from being a favorite holiday decoration, these plants are also used in medicine and rituals. Did you know that the Aztecs used them for making reddish purple dye for cosmetics, clothing and textiles?
- As Ornamental Plant
These plants were first cultivated by the Aztecs of Mexico, and even prized by King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma. According to the USDA, they’re the most popular potted plant in America. It’s no surprise that the red variety is the most prized of all, followed by white and multicolored poinsettias.
- In Medicine
The Aztecs had utilized Poinsettias for treating fevers, but in medieval times they were used as purgatives to get rid of black bile. Nowadays, poinsettias and their sap are made into medicine. Some even use them for treating skin disorders and relieving pain.
- In Rituals and Traditions
It’s said that the Aztecs used these plants in their religious ceremonies, as they were a sacred and pure flower. After the Conquest of Mexico, the plant found their way in Christian rituals, where a group of religious orders within the Catholic Church incorporated them into processions.
The Poinsettia Flower in Use Today
Poinsettia displays are common during holidays, as they beautifully fit into almost any decorative scheme. They add a traditional vibe to the Christmas tree, as well as festive touches to staircases and banisters. You may also be creative on using them as bouquets, centerpieces and wreaths.
Red is classic but going for other colors will let your flowers shine beyond Christmas. Think of ‘Winter Rose Marble,’ ‘Gold Rush,’ striped and multicolored varieties. When planted in tropical gardens, they can grow into a large shrub. Poinsettias can also be a decorative houseplant when placed near a sunny window.
In winter weddings, these blooms can also be incorporated into bridal posies and bridesmaids’ bouquets for a contemporary twist. As reception flowers, they’ll look great in glass trifles and stands. Regardless of your wedding theme, they’ll surely bring the magic of holiday season to your big day.
When to Give Poinsettias
The poinsettias are the traditional Christmas flower to give and receive to make the holidays more special. When you don’t have a gift to exchange, you can be creative with these blooms. Make your own bouquet or even paint the leaves with dye and spray them with glitter.
You can also celebrate the National Poinsettia Day each year on the 12th of December by gifting these blooms to your special someone, family, friends and colleagues. After all, they’re decorative, making them ideal houseplants and holiday decorations.
These vibrant red and green plants are synonymous with the Christmas season, but the next time you see them, remember they’re the tropical flowers of Mexico. As a symbol of merriment, Poinsettias are an ideal year-round decoration in your home too!