Mexican Weed: International Symbol of Christmas
Tara A. Spears
Western tradition holds that Christmas colors are red and green yet the original Christmas events occurred in a far eastern desert where shades of brown and gray are the norm. So how did evergreen trees and scarlet flowers become the tradition? Like so many wonderful things that the civilized world has embraced, it all began in Mexico.
The legend: A poor Mexican girl had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. Little Maria knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt saddened and embarrassed by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.
As Maria approached the altar, she remembered her cousin’s kind words. Maria felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay her simple bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
History: The plant presently known as Poinsetta is native to Native to Central America but flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The ancient Aztecs had a name for this plant found blooming in the tropical highlands during the short days of winter: cuetlaxochitl. Not merely decorative, the Aztecs put the plant to practical use. From its bracts they extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The blood-red bracts were often placed on the chests of those suffering from heart problems to help stimulate circulation.
Sometimes the red bracts were crushed to a pulp to be used as a poultice for the treatment of skin infections. The milky white sap, today called latex, was made into a preparation to treat fevers. For centuries the brilliant red winter flower was treasured by the indigenous Mexicans. When the foreigners came they were also taken by the beauty of this local plant. It is believed that the poinsettia flower was first used in connection with Christmas in the 17th century when Mexican Franciscans included the abundant wild flowers in their Christmas celebration.
In the 19th century, a man named Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825 – 1829) by President Adams. Poinsett had attended medical school, but his real love in the scientific field was botany. Mr. Poinsett later founded the Smithsonian Institution. Imagine his joy to discover the wealth of exotic flowers flourishing in his new job location in Mexico.Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco, Mexico, area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to North American friends and botanical gardens.
Among the recipients of Poinsett’s work was John Bartram of Philadelphia, who in turn gave the plant over to another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Mr. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (literally, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”). Though the plant is thought to have become known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, it’s clear how it got its name.
Caution: According to Poinsindex, “a 50 pound child would have to ingest 500-600 leaves to exceed experimental doses that found no toxicity.” The white sticky sap however, may cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals. Pet owners can rely on findings from the ASPCA. According to the ASPCA, “In reality, poinsettia ingestions typically produce only mild to moderate gastrointestinal tract irritation, which may include drooling, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Keeping this plant out of the reach of your pet to avoid stomach upset is still a good idea, but you need not banish the poinsettia from your home for fear of a fatal exposure.”
Care of plants: All the Jaltemba Bay nurseries offer excellent quality poinsettia plants. The local La Penita Thursday market, tianguis, has fantastic specimens at a very low price. Unwrap your poinsettia carefully and place it in indirect light or partially sunny location. Six hours of light daily is ideal. DO NOT PLACE IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT.
The perfect habitat for poinsettias requires daytime temperatures of 60 to 70°F and night time temperatures around 55°F. High temperatures will shorten the plant’s life. Move the plant to a cooler room at night, if possible.
Check the soil daily. Be sure to punch holes in foil so water can drain into a saucer. Water when soil is dry. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess water.
How to choose a healthy poinsettia: Choose a plant with dark green foliage down to the soil line. Look for bracts (modified leaves) that are completely colored. Do not purchase poinsettias with a lot of green around the bract edges. Do not choose plants with fallen or yellowed leaves or that is drooping.
The poinsettia should look full, balanced and attractive from all sides. A healthy plant should be 2 1/2 times taller than the diameter of the container. Here in the sub-tropics, poinsettia will live all year long. They will turn into a shrub if in the proper shady location.
As the world celebrates Christmas with gifts of poinsettias and churches of all denominations decorate with this Mexican weed, we should reflect on the miracle of the humble poinsettia and think, “thank you, Mexico, for this gift!”