In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.
What is its background as the Christmas Flower?
Poinsettia in Mexico
During college, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town about an hour and a half south of Mexico City. Nochebuena, the Mexican name of the flower English speakers call poinsettia, was discovered in Taxco and the valleys surrounding Cuernavaca.
The story is told in Mexico that long ago, the people flocked to church on Christmas Eve because they loved to fill the Christ child’s manger with flowers. A little boy named Jose was too poor to buy any flowers. The story continues that an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from the side of the road. Following the instructions, Jose brought the weeds to the church. When he put them in the manger, they changed into beautiful scarlet flowers. The Mexicans call them the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” the Flower of Christmas Eve.
Poinsett: Physician and Diplomat
You may know Dr. Poinsett as the founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution. He had studied law at his father’s insistence, without much interest, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
He served in the South Carolina legislature and the United States House of Representatives, as well as Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren. He traveled extensively in Europe, western Asia, and Latin America.
Poinsettia Etymological Evolution
The plant was initially known in the United States as “painted leaf” or “Mexican fire plant” until eventually it was named poinsetta pulcherrima, or “poinsettia,” in honor of its “discoverer” Dr. Poinsett. There are also white, pink, and dappled poinsettias.
By the early 1900s, they were sold as potted plants in California. Many poinsettias are still raised in the state, especially for use as Christmas gifts and decorations. The city of Ventura, California, is known as the Poinsettia City.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian