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The History of the Poinsettia Christmas Plant

Updated on December 29, 2013

How a Native Plant of Mexico Became Known Around the World

Thousands of years ago, the Aztecs used a plant they called Cuitlaxochitl to make red dye and ease fever. Today that same plant is known around the world as the poinsettia, a beautiful plant that produces bright red leaves during winter and is now closely associated with Christmas celebrations. How did this native plant of Mexico make the leap to world stardom? Read on to find out.

(Image of poinsettia card provided by Zazzle)

Long before Europeans came to the Americas, the Aztecs were growing poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima). They used the flowering plant to make a reddish dye and to counteract fever, and it was also used in midwinter celebrations. Today the poinsettia with its bright red leaves is a common site around the world in most countries that celebrate Christmas. But how did this plant indigenous to southern Mexico and Central America become a worldwide symbol associated with the holidays?

Legend of the Poinsettia

Mexican legend tells of a young girl who couldn't afford a gift to leave at the manger scene of the local church one Christmas Eve. As she watched others give expensive presents, she was very sad and desperately wished she had something to leave for the Baby Jesus. Then an angel appeared to the girl and told her that even the most humble gift when given with love would be acceptable. The angel told the child to gather weeds and take them back to the manager.

When the girl returned to the church, she lovingly placed the weeds by the manager and suddenly red "blossoms" sprouted and the weeds became beautiful poinsettias. It was a Christmas miracle.

Wikipedia says the legend of the poinsettia dates back to the 16th century. By the 17th century, Franciscan friars were including the plants, known as Flor de Buena Noche or Christmas Eve flower, in Christmas celebrations.

Poinsettias Come to the U.S.

The history of poinsettia starts in the United States in 1825, when Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first United States Minister to Mexico, sent some of the plants home to South Carolina and began propagating the plants. A historian later gave Euphorbia pulcherrima their popular name in honor of Poinsett's discovery.

The first commercial poinsettias were developed in 1829, but the plants didn't become common holiday decorations right away. The plant's eventual popularization can be largely credited to the Ecke family of southern California. Albert Ecke and his son Paul started selling and promoting poinsettias in the early 1900s and later heavily promoted the plants by appearing on shows such as Bob Hope's Christmas specials and "The Tonight Show." they also made it a point to send free poinsettias to TV stations during the holidays so the stations could display them on air.

Today the poinsettia has become a well-known part of Christmas celebrations around the world.

Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola - A book for children

The Legend of the Poinsettia
The Legend of the Poinsettia

Publishers Weekly: In the tradition of his The Legend of the Bluebonnet and The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, dePaola offers another gracious retelling of a timeless folktale. His skillfully pared-down narrative and paintings that glow with strong colors present the story of a well-intentioned Mexican child, Lucida. Distressed because she has no other gift to offer Baby Jesus, she carries into the church an armful of weeds, each of which suddenly becomes "tipped with a flaming red star"-marking the miraculous blooming of the first poinsettias.

 

If you're still worrying about having your kids or pets near poinsettias - stop worrying. Despite the fact that a a 1995 survey by the American Society of Florists found that 66% of American believe poinsettias are poisonous when eaten, they're not actually poisonous. The myth was started by a doctor who incorrectly attributed a child's death to a poinsettia plant. Though incorrect, the diagnosis has led to a long-standing myth that the plants are dangerous.

Some suggest the myth continues to thrive because the name "poinsettia" sounds a bit similar to the word "poison." Others suggest the confusion may be caused by the fact that other plants in the genus Euphorbia ARE toxic. And it may simply be the fact that while poinsettias are not poisonous, they're not really edible either.

The Minnesota Poison Control System says , "The fact is that (poinsettias) are not poisonous. Nor are they edible and it can be expected that, when eaten in quantity, they may cause stomach upset with possible vomiting. This may happen when an overactive puppy devours an entire plant. In the case of a child who eats a single leaf, no ill effects would be expected."

Or to put it in the words of Dr. Edward Krenzelok, Director of Pittsburgh Poison Center, in an interview with NPR: "There was a Swiss physician from the Middle Ages by the name of Paracelsus who said everything is poisonous and what differentiates a poison from a remedy is the dose. And that's sort of it with poinsettia. If you eat enough, you'll become ill."

And how much would that be? Snopes.com quotes the POISINDEX saying a child would have to eat more than 500-600 leaves to exceed the doses that have been tested.

So unless your child or pet is planning to eat an entire field of poinsettias, the plants should pose no danger.

(Image of poinsettia plant by Classic_Cat on Zazzle)

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Article revised from The History of Poinsettia Plants on HubPages

Did You Learn Something About the Poinsettia Christmas Plant?

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    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 4 years ago

      Lovely lens and good information about this plant. Must admit it is one of the least of my favorites. Blessed and have a wonderful holiday season and great 2013. Hugs

    • MBurgess profile image

      Maria Burgess 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      I love poinsettias! I enjoyed your walk through history of them! Thanks for sharing and Happy Holidays!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Now, you have some sweet surprises here...started with the Aztecs and not poisonous!

    • LisaDH profile image
      Author

      LisaDH 6 years ago

      @ajgodinho: Thanks for the blessing. :-)

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Beautiful short and sweet lens on the history of the Poinsettia Christmas plant. Seasonâs greetings and the best for the New Year! **Blessed by a Squid-Angel**

    • imolaK profile image

      imolaK 6 years ago

      Very informative and nice lens. I enjoyed reading it. Merry Christmas!

    • Gamganny profile image

      Gamganny 7 years ago

      Very interesting facts about Poinsettia Plants.