The poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico’s Central and Southern regions, where it grows as a perennial that may reach eight to ten feet in height. It was domesticated in pre-Hispanic times, used to dye textiles and treasured as a tribute to gods, such as no other than Tonantzin (Our Lady, Our Mother); its Nahuatl name cuetlaxochitl means “wilted flower” maybe from the plant’s habit to shed in a cascade of leaves, often leaving the thin branches in a shambles.
In colonial Mexico, poinsettias became a popular decoration for the Christmas season since at least the 17th century; they started to appear in Franciscan Nativity processions during Spanish rule, as the plant’s specialized top leaves, called bracts, naturally turned bright red in the month of December, when flowers were probably scarce. Some legends claim that when these plants were brought inside a church for the first time on Christmas Eve, they “miraculously bloomed” overnight. Since then, the Spanish name for them has been “La Flor de Nochebuena,” which translated directly into English means “The Holy Night (Christmas Eve) Flower.”
Later on, shortly after Mexico became an independent nation, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, also a botanist, was enchanted by the plants. In 1828, he sent some cuttings to his home in South Carolina, and gave some samples to his horticultural friends. One of them, Paul Ecke, developed a technique which caused seedlings to branch, providing a bridge for the limited cultivation of the Christmas Eve flower to become a flourishing industry. Around that time, the English name “Poinsettia” was adopted, in honour of the diplomat.
Today, the poinsettia is the best selling potted plant in North America, and it can be found in many shades besides the classic red, such as white, pink, gold, and even variegated, not only adorning gardens and churches, but many homes and public places. I remember being marvelled by the size of the outdoor perennials peeking over house fences or at botanical gardens in Mexico since my early childhood, and either buying, getting or giving at least one potted poinsettia every Christmas time. This year was not the exception, and in spite of the many varieties available, my favourite is still the original bright red Nochebuena.
FUN FACT: Poinsettias are photoperiodic plants, which means that they are sensitive to the amount of light they receive due to seasonal changes. As mentioned above, the top leaves (bracts) naturally turn red (or other colours) in winter, when nights are the longest. In cold climate regions, such as Canada, in order to reproduce this condition indoors, potted plants are placed in closets or basements at night, for around 11 hours of complete darkness, “forcing” the poinsettia’s cycle into an artificial long night. This could explain the sudden coloration appearing after poinsettias were brought inside churches – often dark – near Christmas Eve, just a few days after the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
ANOTHER FUN FACT: There is a Noche Buena™ brand beer produced in Mexico since 1924, which is only available from October to December. It was first produced by the company founders, German beer masters who brewed small batches of a special Bock style beer for themselves. It was so successful also as gifts to friends and employees, that they began to produce it commercially, also in small batches, for the holiday season. It is described as a dark beer with robust body, suitable to be enjoyed during the cool winter time.
LAST FUN FACT: One of the best known cheese companies in Mexico is also named Nochebuena™, after the plant, with more than 70 years in the market. I could not find the history of this company, but I remember there was one of their own stores within walking distance from my family’s apartment building in Mexico City, and I would often stop by after school as an undergrad, and buy cheese to bring home, yummy!