The poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico’s Central and Southern regions, where it grows as a perennial and may reach eight to ten feet in height:
Poinsettias were domesticated in pre-Hispanic times; the Mexicas called it cuetlaxochitl, which means “wilted flower.” The plant had practical and ceremonial purposes for them, such as to dye textiles, and as a tribute to their gods. 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 literally means “The Holy Night (Christmas Eve) Flower.”
Later on, after Mexico became an independent nation, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, who was 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, poinsettias are the best selling potted plants in North America, found in nurseries and supermarkets:
They can be found in many shades besides the classic red shown at the top of this post, such as white, pink, gold, and even variegated:
During the Christmas season, there seems to be no vacant spot without a poinsettia, adorning gardens and churches, as well as many other public places. I recently had a chance to visit the beautiful city of Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco (more of that trip in future posts), and found poinsettias all over, including the hotel lobby:
And at a roundabout, which becomes a pedestrian and bicycle route every Sunday, by the iconic statue of Minerva: