Poinsettias were called the tongue-twisting Euphorbia pulcherrima until 1836. That botanical name was assigned by the German botanist, Wilenow. Reportedly, the plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful.”
Centuries before, the Aztecs called them “Cuetlaxochitl” and appreciated them for more than their beauty. They extracted a reddish/purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics and used the milky-white sap to treat fevers. The Cuetlaxochitl flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. Because of his love of the plant and the fact that they could not be grown in his capitol, today known as Mexico City, Montezuma would have them brought in by caravans.
Perhaps the plant’s first religious connection started during the 17th Century. Franciscan priests near Taxco, began to use the brilliantly-blooming plant, in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. It soon came to be symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem and was quickly associated with the Christmas season. It is known today as the “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night” in Central America.
The plant did not make its way to the United States until 1828 when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, wandered into the Mexican countryside to look for new plant species and found the beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.
In 1836, William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked to give Euphorbia pulcherrima a new name as it became more popular. At that time, Mr. Prescott had just published Conquest of Mexico, a book in which he detailed Joel Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. Prescott named the plant the poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett’s discovery.
In the early 1900’s the Ecke family of southern California grew poinsettias outdoors for use as landscape plants and as a cut flower. Eventually they began to cultivate them in greenhouses and are still recognized as a leading producer of poinsettias in the United States.
The true flower of the Poinsettia is small and yellow. The large brightly-colored leaves are bracts. Although not poisonous, many people tend to develop a dermal reaction, or minor skin rash, when exposed to the sap of the plant.
Don’t forget that here in Florida, poinsettias can be planted outside and be encouraged to bloom again. For more information on how to accomplish that visit http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/hot_topics/lawn_and_garden/poinsettias.html.
About the Author: Sylvia Durell is the Hernando County Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ (FFL) Program Coordinator. Her position is funded by the Hernando County Utilities Department. She is a Certified Horticulture Professional through the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association. Ms. Durell is available for presentations to clubs and for “brown bag” lunch programs for employees of Hernando County companies. Call (352) 540-6230 for a list of topics.