You can find a poinsettia's scarlet, star-shaped leaves everywhere you turn during the holidays. Poinsettias are one of the most popular Christmas decorations around, with more than $200 million in sales every holiday season [source: University of Illinois]. But how did this plant from the Mexican countryside become a botanical staple in our season of giving? Who brought it to America? And is there any truth to the belief that munching on one of its leaves could be fatal?
Poinsettias (Euphorbia Pulcherrima) have a rich cultural history. The tropical shrubs, which have about 100 different species and reach heights of up to 12 feet tall in their natural habitat, were known as "Cuetlaxochitl" to the Aztecs and used to dye clothing and cure fevers [source: Perry]. Poinsettias were also used in Aztec religious ceremonies since the Aztecs considered the color red a symbol of purity.
Many mistake the poinsettia's leaves as flower petals, but the flowers are actually the smaller, yellow buds in a poinsettia's center. These bracts -- the upper portion of the leaves -- are famously red, although they actually bloom in a variety of hues, such as pink, white and yellow. Poinsettias, also known as the "lobster flower" or "Mexican flame leaf," bloom in December, making them an ideal holiday flower.
In the next section, we'll look at how and when the poinsettia became a popular holiday symbol.
History of the Poinsettia
Poinsettias didn't arrive in the United States until the 19th century. The plant is named for the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced America to the poinsettia in 1828, after discovering it in the wilderness in southern Mexico. Dr. Poinsett, who dabbled in botany when he wasn't politicking between nations, sent cuttings of the plant back to his South Carolina home. While it wasn't initially embraced, its caught on over the years, and by the 20th century it was a holiday mainstay. In fact, National Poinsettia Day is celebrated on Dec. 12, honoring both the plant and the man who brought it to America [source: University of Illinois].
So what does a poinsettia have to do with Christmas? One interpretation of the plant is as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, the heavenly body that led the three magi, or wise men, to the place where Christ was born. A Mexican legend tells of a girl who could only offer weeds as a gift to Jesus on Christmas Eve. When she brought the weeds into a church, they blossomed into the beautiful red plants we know as poinsettias, known as Flores de Noche Buena in Mexico (Spanish for "flowers of the holy night").
A common myth that has existed for generations is that a poinsettia's leaves are poisonous. Although it's probably not a good idea to have a competitive-eating contest with poinsettia bracts since they could cause diarrhea, research has shown that a child could consume as many as 500 poinsettia bracts without any toxic effects [source: Perry]. A tot who accidentally nibbles on a leaf may not feel well, but the consequences won't be fatal.
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More Great Links
- Perry, Dr. Leonard. "Fun Facts about Poinsettias." Backyardgardener.com. (11/14/07). http://www.backyardgardener.com/masterg/g-59.html
- "The Legend of the Poinsettia." Paul Ecke Ranch. (11/14/07). http://www.ecke.com/HTML/h_corp/corp_legend.html
- "The Poinsettia Pages," University of Illinois Extension, University of Illinois-Champaign. Urban Programs Resource Network. (11/14/07). http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/poinsettia/
- "Poinsettias (Christmas flowers)." The Flower Expert-Online Flowers Encyclopedia. (11/14/07). http://www.theflowerexpert.com/content/giftflowers/flowersandoccassions /poinsettias