Poinsettia - Down History Lane

Poinsettias have a colorful history. The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherima) has become a traditional symbol of Christmas. Long before Christianity was introduced into the Americas, the Aztec in Mexico were cultivating the colorful red and green plant. It was highly prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl and Montezuma, although for climatic reasons the poinsettia could not be grown in the capital, which is now known as Mexico City.

In addition to its ornamental value, the poinsettia had many uses, both symbolic and practical, for the indigenous people of Mexico. Called cuetlaxochitl by the Aztec, meaning "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure", it represented purity and served as a reminder of blood sacrifices. The plant's red bracts were used to make a reddish-purple dye, or placed on a person's chest to stimulate circulation. They were crushed and applied to skin infections. The plant's latex was turned into a medicine to fight fevers. Today the Poinsettia has little medicinal applications. 

During the seventeenth century, Franciscan priests near Taxco found the plant to be brilliantly colorful and saw that it bloomed during the Christmas season. They used the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre nativity procession. 

The poinsettia, an Aztec reminder of human blood sacrifices, soon came to represent the blood of Christ to Catholics and Christians. Today, the Poinsettia is synonymous with Christmas. It is the most popular plant in the world. It is even more popular than the chrysanthemum. 

Here are some other fast facts:

  • 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 a book called the Conquest of Mexico in which he detailed Joel Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. So, Prescott named the plant the poinsettia in honor of Joel Poinsett’s discovery.
  • The botanical name, Euphorbia Pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. The plant grew through a crack in his greenhouse. Dazzled by its color, he gave it the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning "very beautiful."
  • Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico being appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820's. At the time of his appointment, Mexico was involved in a civil war. Because of his interest in botany he introduced the American Elm into Mexico. During his stay in Mexico he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species. In 1828 he found a 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. Even though Poinsett had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and as an ambassador he will always be remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States.
  • 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 the family grew poinsettias in greenhouses and today are recognized as the leading producer of poinsettias in the United States.


Christmas       St. Nicholas Day         Poinsettia Day        Hanukkah         Kwanzaa