The connection between the holiday poinsettia, Christmas and Mexico
While they exist year round, the brightly colored poinsettia is seen mostly during the Christmas season each December and into January. Indigenous to Central America and Mexico, the poinsettia is locally called the Flor de Nochebuena.
The plant is well-known for its red and green foliage, making it ideal for use in Christmas displays. Its name comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in the 1800s.
The unassuming plant does not attract pollinators and is found wild in deciduous tropical forests from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico and into Chiapas and Guatemala. It has even been located in the hot and seasonally dry forests of Guerrero and Oaxaca. There are more than 100 cultivated varieties of the plant.
The Aztecs once used the plant as an antipyretic (fever) medication. They also used it to produce red dye, however the plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico and was not at all related to the Aztecs.
Legend has it that a young girl called Pepita was too poor to provide a gift for Jesus’ birthday and began to cry. Inspired by an angel, young Pepita gathered weeds from a roadside and placed them in front of the alter. When her tears fell on the weeds, crimson blossoms emerged and turned into beautiful poinsettias.
Another local legend says that from the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico began including the plant with their Christmas celebrations. While celebrating Christmas using the poinsettia in a nativity scene, the Star of Bethlehem passed overhead during the mass. The leaves of the poinsettia turned from green to bright red. The plant, which was formally a symbol of Aztec sacrifice, became a symbol of the blood of Christ and thus, became associated with Christmas.
December 12th is National Poinsettia Day in remembrance of Joel Poinsett who died on that date in 1851.