Poinsettias are native to Central America and flourish in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon, where they bloom in the tropical highlands during the short days of Winter. The ancient Aztecs called this plant Cuetlaxochitle and utilized it for far more than mere decorative purposes. From its bracts, they extracted a reddish/purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The milky-white sap (known today as latex) was made into a preparation which the Aztecs used to treat fevers.
Poinsettias were highly prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl and Montezuma (the last of the Aztec rulers) but, because of climatic restrictions and the high altitude, could not be grown in their capital, known today as Mexico City. Consequently, the plants were brought in by caravans.
Perhaps the first religious connotation placed on Poinsettias originated during the Seventeenth Century. Due to the plant's brilliant color and holiday blooming time, Franciscan priests near Taxco, began to use the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. It soon came to be symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem and quickly associated itself with the Christmas season.
The plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, who later founded the institution known today as the Smithsonian. While visiting the Taxco region in 1828, Poinsett became fascinated with the brilliant red blooms he noticed in the area. He immediately transported some of the plants back to the hothouses of his South Carolina plantation, where he began to propagate the plants, sending them to friends and botanical gardens. One recipient of Poinsett's generosity was John Bartram of Philadelphia who, in turn, gave the plant to another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is believed to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima. It is thought that the plant became known by its more popular name of "Poinsettia" around 1836 when William Prescott, an historian and horticulturist, was asked to give the plant a new name as it became more popular. At that time, Prescott had recently published a book entitled "The Conquest of Mexico," in which he had detailed Poinsett's discovery of the plant. Thus, Prescott named the Poinsettia in honor of the American Ambassador's discovery.
The botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima had originally been assigned to the Poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. The plant had grown through a crack in his greenhouse and, dazzled by its color, Wilenow had given it the botanical name meaning "the most beautiful Euphorbia."
The true flower of the Poinsettia is small and yellow but surrounding the flower, are the large leaves, often mistaken for petals. Commonly bright red in color, these leaves may also be found in white, pink or bi-colored varieties. In the wild, the Poinsettia plant grows as a large shrub or a small tree. Although not poisonous, many people tend to develop a dermal reaction, or minor skin rash, when exposed to the sap of the plant. With its lovely, red, star-shape, the Poinsettia is a favored seasonal flower, particularly in the United States. It is known today as the "Flame Leaf" or "Flower of the Holy Night" in Central America.
Not surprisingly, the "Legend of the Poinsettia" originates from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her small brother Pablo (in an alternative version, the girl is named "Pepita" and "Pedro" is her cousin). They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year, a large nativity scene was erected in the village church and the days prior to Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas, but were always saddened because they had no money with which to buy presents. They especially wished they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.
One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. Along the way, Maria stopped to kneel by the roadside and pick some weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. She had decided to take the posy as a gift for the Infant Christ in the manger scene. Of course, other children teased the pair when they arrived with their humble gift, but Maria and Pablo said nothing. They knew they had given what they could.
Then, as Maria lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene, the top green leaves miraculously transformed into bright-red petals. Soon, the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and all who saw the sight were convinced they had witnessed a Christmas miracle. From that day forward, the bright-red flowers became known as the Flores de Noche Buena..."Flowers of the Holy Night"...for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.