Wednesday, December 12, 2012

LID: A Poinsettia Tradition Started by the Mexicans

December 12

Poinsettia Day

What would December be without the Poinsettia? I can't remember a year where I didn't see the Poinsettia proudly displayed during the month of December. When I was a little girl, my mom and I would often buy a poinsettias in memory of my father, who had died when I was nine years old. It would sit with the other poinsettias that had been bought in honor or in memory of someone at our Christmas Eve and Christmas church services.

 Poinsettia have been the number one selling potted plant in December for a long time. They can easily gross more than $250 million sales during the six-week period before Christmas. The beautiful plant has become an important Christmas symbol cherished for generations. Although they are widely displayed during the holiday season in the United States the poinsettia is not one of our native plants. Who do we have to thank for the cultivation of this timeless classics?

The Aztecs and the Poinsettia

Prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl (April 28, 1402 – June 4, 1472) and Montezuma (1466 – 29 June 1520), the poinsettia was considered to be a gift from the gods. It grew naturally in the tropical lowlands of Mexico in the region of Oaxatcpec. Oaxatcpec was conquered by the Aztec king Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (1440–1469). He created the area as a leisure center for the Aztec nobles. He also created an irrigation system there using the local water springs to create an elaborate royal gardens that cultivated flowers and plants.

The Aztecs called the Poinsettia Cuetlaxochitl, which means "Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure". The red leaves of the poinsettia served to remind the Aztecs that the gods had created the universe, the debt of which was to be repaid by a human sacrifice. During the mid-winter celebrations the poinsettia was used to represent blood sacrifices and purity.

Between 1440-1446 AD, the last Aztec ruler, King Montezuma and his half brother Tlacalel visited the royal gardens of Oaxatcpec. King Montezuma and his brother had wanted to transplant poinsettia plants to Tenochtitlan but found the plant would not survive the climate change. Instead, he ordered that the poinsettia plants be cultiviated in Oaxatcpec. The red leaves were used as dye for clothes and the sap of  plant was used to treat fevers. Caravans of poinsettia plants were transported from Oaxatcpec to Tenochtitlan. King Montezuma even decorated his palace with poinsettia plants. The plant was highly regarded as a cash crop to the Aztecs. It was even planted in small gardens. From October to May, the flowers were greatly admired by the Aztecs. It was considered to be "birds aflame".

The Christmas Flower

The poinsettia plant spread throughout the lowlands of Mexico. During the 17th century,  a group of Spanish Franciscan priests settled near Taxco. Taxco was sparsely populated and had been used since before the arrival of the Spanish for mining. They noticed the poinsettia blooming and just as the Aztec's had, they associated the red leaves with blood. The priests believed the leaves were to remind everyone of the blood sacrifice Jesus had given on the cross. The first bloom in October was to signal to all Catholics and Christians that Christmas was coming. The priests used the poinsettia in the nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. They called the poinsettia "la flor de Nochebuena," or Holy Night (Christmas Eve) flower. Many legends arose to explain how this flower came into existence. You can read one of those legends here:

Joel Roberts Poinsett

 In 1828, American botanist, physician, Joel Roberts Poinsett, served in Mexico as the United States Ambassador. While visiting the Taxco area he came a came upon the Poinsettia plant growing around the surrounding hillsides. He saw some of the plants decorating some of the churches in Taxco. Poinsett fell in love the the plant. Intrigued with its flaming flowers and red leaves he took a few clippings and had the plant sent to his home in Charleston, South Carolina to adorn his house for Christmas his was the first time the poinsettia had been seen in the United States.  Years later, when he returned to his home he found the plant had thrived. He took the plant into his greenhouse and tried to grow more. They did quite well and he forwarded samples onto his horticultural friends. One of his friends was John Bartram of Philadelphia. Bartram was so intrigued with the plant that he passed it onto his friend Robert Buist. Buise was a nurseryman who first sold the plant as Euphorbia pulcherrima. In 1833, German botanist, Wilenow assigned the plant its latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima and was known by that name until 1837 when it was changed to Poinsettia Pulcherrima in honor of Joel Robert Poinsett. The plant was first mentioned in this 1837 article:

Poinsettia Pulcherrima. Showy Poinsettia. This truly splendid plant was discovered by Mr. Poinsette, in Mexico, and sent by him to Charleston in 1828, and afterwards to Mr. Buist of Philadelphia; from Mr. Buist, it was brought by Mr. James McNab to the Botanical Garden Edinburgh, where it flowered twice last year, and again in February of the present year... 
(From "Paxton's Magazine of Botany" Published 1837)

Today there are over 100 varieties of the poinsettia. You can learn more about Joel Roberts Poinsett's amazing life at this link:

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