The Meaning of Poinsettias

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By Luz V. García, MS,

How beautiful is the view of poinsettias as a seasonal arrangement in our homes!

Poinsettias are native plants from Mexico. In Mexico they celebrate Poinsettia Day, on December 12, a tradition that began after the first American Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett discovered the plant in 1828.

But the first references to this plant go way back to the times of Aztec emperor Montezuma who in the 15 Century demanded that Poinsenttias be brought to the City of Mexico from lower lands in Mexico. The Aztecs called the plant “ CUITLAXOCHITL” that means ”Star Flower” and back then the plant was given the scientific name “Euphorbia pulcherrima” which means “ the most beautiful”. Aztecs used the white milky suds of the plant as a medicine for fever and extracted the pigment for makeup and also to dye their clothes..

But it was in the 16th century that the Franciscan Monks in Mexico began the tradition of using poinsettias for Christmas decorations. In the 17 Century, Mexicans celebrated the Day of the Lady of Guadalupe also on December 12 and they call the poinsettia the” Flower of Christmas Eve “. There is a Mexican legend that talks about two children, a boy and a girl, who had nothing to take to the Church Nativity Scene on Christmas Eve, but left a green poinsettia plant as their gift. According to the legend on Christmas morning, the leaves of their poinsettia had turned into a bright red color.

The first scientific records in Mexico about poinsettias were written in the 17 Century, by botanist Juan Balme.

In USA, the U.S. House of Representative proclaimed in July 2002 “Poinsettia Day” in honor of Paul Ecke Jr who in 1900 discovered a technique that allows the reproduction in mass through poinsettia seeds. That is why it is so easy to find this plant here in US during winter season. The world production of this plant has increased considerably and now we can see a variety of colors, from rose to white and even blue.

What is the meaning of poinsettias to you? For me, it represents a flower that announces the beginning of Christmas season. It does not matter, where our poinsettias come from, the truth is that we enjoy them in a variety of colors and if we are fortunate to cultivate them throughout the year.

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.

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