The Plant of Christmas: The Poinsettia

The modern poinsettia. Image r	Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture</a..

The modern poinsettia. Image Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When you think of floral decorations for the Christmas holidays, one main plant comes to mind—the poinsettia. Today’s large lush poinsettias, saturated with exuberant reds and greens, feel the very embodiment of Christmas cheer. It did not have to be that way and their path to Christmas ubiquity in the 21st century is a centuries long, global journey with some crazy intrigue. It begins in Mexico, involves Aztecs, Franciscan Missionaries, an American diplomat, a horticultural monopoly broken by a graduate student (of course) and culminates in off-shore outsourcing. Yes, hold on tight for the surprisingly juicy history of the poinsettia.

A close up of a poinsettia showing the flowers. Photo by André Karwath.

A close up of a poinsettia showing the flowers. Photo by André Karwath.

Humble Beginnings

A native plant of Mexico, the poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima originated in a limited region of south central Mexico near present day Taxco. The showy red, pink, white, or bicolored portions, popularly thought of as the flower, are actually modified leaves or bracts. The true flowers are unassuming yellow structures grouped in the center of the leaf bunch.

The wild poinsettia is a far cry from what you buy today in your corner store, but the bright color still caught the eye of the Aztecs who prized them as a symbol of purity. They were its first cultivators and used the poinsettia bracts to make a reddish-purple dye, and its latex for a medicine against fever.

A ponsettia in the wild. Photo by  J.M. Garg.

A poinsettia in the wild. Photo by J.M. Garg.

The Plant of Legends

In the 17th century, after Spanish conquest, Franciscan missionaries living in an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco de Alarcon began to use the flaming red plant for nativity processions. It becomes known in Spanish as, “la flor de Nochebuena,” or the Christmas Eve flower.

Several religious stories are traced to this general time period. One is of a girl, Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. In her sadness she cries, and an angel appears and tells her to gather nearby weeds. Her tears fall upon the weeds and miraculously turn them into magnificent red blooms.

A second story, one that helped cement the plant as a Christian Christmas symbol, is of Franciscan Friars celebrating mass around a nativity scene decorated with la flor de Nochebueana. During mass, as the star of Bethlehem rises, the star shaped leaves turn from green to bright red.

One of the legends of the Poinsettia as a childrens book. See below for a link to buy it.

One of the legends of the poinsettia as a children’s book. You can buy it here.

Read the rest of the article to find out how poinsettia’s got their name, and how the graduate student turned the poinsettia industry upside down here at

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Julia Gaudinski

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