Poinsettia legends paved the way to our official flower of the holiday season. Wild natives of Southern Mexico and Central America, the velvet red cuetlaxochitl flowers grow in thick woody shrubs up to twelve feet high. Aztecs cherished them for centuries. They enamored the Spanish in the 1600s. In 1804, explorer Alexander von Humboldt sent specimens back to Berlin. In the 1820s the American ambassador to Mexico sent clippings back to his greenhouses in South Carolina. Soon after, Poinsettia legends bloomed into holiday traditions around the world.
The flowers blossom in December thanks to longer nights after the autumn equinox. According to Swanson Nursery of Seattle:
“Green leaves give way to red, pink or white bracts that surround the small yellow flowers on the end of the plant’s tall stem. A bract is a modified leaf associated with a plant’s flowers…To ensure blooms, cuetlaxochitl need extended periods of darkness (14-16 hours per night) beginning in late September…”
The red flame-like cuetlaxochitl signals the start of a new cycle of life. Its name translates into “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.” Just as indigenous people incorporated the annual October arrival of monarch butterflies into Día de los Muertos decorations, they used cuetlaxochitl to brighten winter holidays.
In Oaxaca, a famous festival developed around the harvest of enormous radishes that are carved in to seasonal masterpieces.
Aztecs Prized The Red Blossoms Of Cuetlaxochitl
The story behind the red blossoms is rich in history and poinsettia legends. Aztecs cultivated the native flowers long before European colonization. Their original Nahuatl name is cuetlaxochitl.
Traditional Mexican Medicine Practitioner and Historian, Maestra Grace explains early legends:
“The cuetlaxochitl was honored as a divine gift in acknowledgement that it had been given to humanity to help re-birth the light on Mother Earth. Temples were adorned with this elegant and dignified plant as its flowering coincided with the date of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, Left-Handed Hummingbird, on the winter solstice.
Huitzilopochtli represents the sacred power related to the sun and the cuetlaxochitl’s red leaves symbolize the sacred energy of the life force of blood. It also represents the blood of warriors killed in battle and heralded the return of those warriors to this world as hummingbirds…”
According to oral tradition the flower was initially white in color, “…but that after the killing of the people of Taxco by the Mexika, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl, at their next blooming, turned red.”
Local people had many medicinal uses for the cuextlaxochitl. From the milky white sap they made medicines to control fever. They used the plant for poultices to treat skin diseases Maestra Grace writes. The plant is also a well-guarded women’s medicine. Additionally they made red and purple dyes from the plants for textiles and crafts.
Spaniards Developed Their Own Poinsettia Legends
Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in the 16th century and missionaries began converting the natives to Catholicism. The timing of the annual bloom for wild cuetlaxochitl began the plant’s association with the Christmas season as friars used the brilliant red flowers to decorate Nativity scenes.
Local legends tell of a peasant girl named Pepita, who was on her way to church on Christmas Eve. Because she could not afford to buy an offering to the baby Jesus, she gathered a bouquet of roadside weeds. Her weeds transformed into vivd red blooms of the cuetlaxochitl when she presented them. From that time forward, the plant was called The Christmas Eve Flower, or la flor de Noche buena.
In another legend, a Christmas mass was underway in Taxco de Alarcón in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The plants around the Nativity scene blossomed into vivid reds.
Cuetlaxochitls Journey To The United States
Doctor Joel Poinsett was a congressman and a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He was also an avid amateur botanist. While visiting Taxco, he saw the native cuetlaxochitl growing wild on hillsides.
According to History, Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives:
“Throughout his world travels, Poinsett collected plant specimens that he cultivated in his private South Carolina greenhouses. As early as 1826, Poinsett brought back the bright green and red, star-shaped plant that Mexicans called the “fire plant,” “painted leaf,” or “Flor de Noche Buena” (The Flower of the Holy Night) in reference to its legendary first bloom on Christmas Eve. The finicky, tropical plant “grew abundantly” under Poinsett’s careful green thumb…”
Poinsett sent specimens to his colleague Robert Buist, a leading Philadelphia botanist and officer with the world-renowned Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), the precursor to today’s prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show.
“Poinsett’s successful cultivation of this specimen earned him international recognition. On June 6, 1829, the plant—exhibited under the Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima—was a popular specimen at the first PHS flower show. “
In 1835, Buist informed Poinsett that the brightly colored plant was making a splash in Europe. Buist had christened it Euphorbia Poinsettia. The new name stuck in Europe and in the United States.
Future First Lady Sarah Childress Polk was so enamored with the popular new holiday flower that she had her inaugural ball gown embroidered with them.
The Dark Side of Poinsettia Legends
According to the Washington Post Mexicans found a different use for Poinsett’s name.
“They made poinsettismo a popular term for officious Yankee meddling, and for good reason. Poinsett helped to organize the masonic lodges that laid the political groundwork for openly pro-American factions working within Mexico. Poinsett’s Mexican opponents vilified him as a political puppeteer and “the scourge of the American continent.”
Swanson Nursery writes:
“Poinsett’s legacy as a slave owner and his role in the displacement of countless Native Americans has led some people today to reject the name “poinsettia” in favor of the plant’s Native name, cuetlaxochitl.”
The Eckes Pollinated Poinsettia Legends
In the early 1900s, the poinsettia plant became a cultural symbol for Christmas as well as an essential item on the Victorian Christmas Shopping list. This was largely due to German immigrant Albert Ecke. After stopping in Los Angeles while heading to Fiji for a family trip, he became a southern California farmer. Initially he grew poinsettias on farmland in Hollywood and sold them from street stands.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 23, 2008 Ecke was a visionary horticulturist and businessman.
“Paul Ecke Sr. gave the poinsettia a makeover through a secret breeding technique that turned the delicate and gangly weed into a sturdy and voluptuous potted plant. In the 1920s he moved south and laid a carpet of poinsettias stretching from Carlsbad to Encinitas.”
Following the model of department stores that created desire through Christmas windows and Woolworth who turned the Christmas Pickle into a must-have item, Paul Ecke Jr. became an inexhaustible promoter of poinsettias.
Developing a method to cultivate the plants indoors in mass quantities, Paul Ecke Sr. founded the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California in 1923. The Ecke family worked tirelessly to promote the poinsettia as a Christmas symbol, and their business model proved lucrative. Today, around 70% of all commercially grown poinsettia plants in the United States originate from Ecke Ranch.
“Paul Ecke Jr. created buzz by showering television networks with free poinsettias from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He extolled their virtues on programs such as “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials.“
Today, more than 70 percent of all poinsettias purchased in the United States are grown at the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California. The ranch is also responsible for about 50 percent of the plant’s worldwide sales. (AgAmerica.com),
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Floriculture Crops 2018 Summary puts the annual U.S. wholesale potted poinsettia market at $149 million, up 6% from 2015 and second only to potted orchids.
May your holidays be filled with joy and brilliant cuetlaxochitl flowers. Instead of tossing them out after the holidays, consider nurturing them for a long and productive life.
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