The poinsettias are native to Central America, especially in an area of southern Mexico known as ‘Taxco del Alarcon’, where they bloom during the winter.
The ancient Aztecs called them ‘cuetlaxochitl’. The Aztecs had many uses for them, including the use of flowers (actually, special types of leaves known as bracts instead of flowers) to make a purple tinge for clothes and cosmetics, and the milky white sap became a medicine to treat fever. (Today we call sap latex!)
The poinsettia became well known to a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett (that’s why we call them Poinsettia!). He was the first United States ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants to South Carolina, where he began to grow the plants and send them to friends and botanical gardens.
One of the friends he sent plants to was John Bartram of Philadelphia. At the first Philadelphia flower show, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania plant man, saw the flower and was probably the first person to sell the Easter flowers with his botanical or Latin name, name ‘Euphorbia pulcherrima’ (meaning ‘the more beautiful euphorbia ‘). First they were sold as cut flowers. It was not until the early 1900s that they were sold as complete plants for gardening and pots. The Ecke family of Southern California was one of, if not the first to sell them as complete plants and remains the leading producer of plants in the United States. It is believed that they were known as poinsettia in the mid-1830s when people discovered who had brought them to the United States from Mexico.
There is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together, this is how it goes:
There was once a poor Mexican girl named Pepita who did not have a gift to give to the baby Jesus in the Christmas Eve services. While Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.
‘Pepita’ said: “I am sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus happy.”
Pepita did not know what she could give, so she took a small handful of weeds from the road and turned them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this little gift to Jesus. As he walked through the chapel to the altar, he remembered what Peter had said. She began to feel better, knelt and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of herbs burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them was certain they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as “Good Night Flowers” or “Holy Night Flowers.”
The shape of the flower and the leaves of the poinsettia is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem that brought the Magi to Jesus. The red leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent its purity. The Poinsettia is also the national emblem of Madagascar.