By Christopher Nyerges

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

The poinsettia is one of America’s most popular flowering holiday plant.

Native to Mexico, the plant is called Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of the Holy Night), due to its supposed resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem. According to tradition, red poinsettia symbolizes the blood of Christ, and a white poinsettia flower represents His purity.

At least as far back as the 14th century in Mexico, the poinsettia was called cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs. When the stems of this plant are broken, a white sap is exuded. 

According to historians, this white milky sap was used to create a preparation to reduce fever symptoms. The plant was highly prized in Aztec culture and was also used to create red and purple dyes for clothing and textiles.

Montezuma, the last of the Aztec emperors, was so enthralled with this plant that he would have caravans of cuetlaxochitl shipped to the capital city of Teotihuacan because the plants could not grow at the high altitude. The plant is native to Central America, flourishing in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon.

By around the 17th century, cuetlaxochitl, well established as a decorative plant in Mexico, started to become a part of the Christmas traditions.

This part of the journey began in the small town of Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico, where Franciscan monks began using the shrub in their nativity processions. Coincidentally, it is also around this time that the Mexican legend of Pepita and the “Flowers of the Holy Night” began, forever tying the red and green shrub to Christmas folklore.

According to Mexican lore, there was a young child, Pepita, who did not have a gift for the baby Jesus at a Christmas Eve service. She was very poor so all she could do was pick a bouquet of weeds to offer. The angels felt compassion for her plight. So, after Pepita set the flowers at the crèche of the nativity on Christmas Eve, the angels transformed the weeds into beautiful red flowers.

The namesake of the poinsettia

An amateur botanist, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, saw the red flowers when visiting the Mexican town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero. 

Poinsett was so impressed by the beauty of these plants that he sent plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to 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.

Buist is believed to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, euphorbia pulcherrima.

Around 1836, the plant become known by its more popular name of “poinsettia,” in recognition of the man who first brought the plant to the United States. Plus, at least for Americans, “poinsettia” was much easier to pronounce than “cuetlaxochitl” (kway-tlash-oh-chee-tul).

Congress honored Jel Poinsett by declaring Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day which commemorates the date of his death in 1851. The day was meant to honor Poinsett and encourage people to enjoy the plant’s beauty.

But the plant’s notoriety increased after Californian Paul Ecke discovered a technique that caused seedlings to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. He began growing the plant in the tens of thousands for the Christmas season. To promote poinsettias as a Christmas plant, he sent the crimson-leaved plants to TV studios across the country, including “The Tonight Show” and Bob Hope’s holiday specials.

Today, poinsettias are at least the second most popular Christmas plant and the best-selling potted plant in the United States and Canada. California remains the top U.S. poinsettia-producing state.

Is the poinsettia poisonous?

The poinsettia is a member of the spurge family, a botanical group that contains plants that are toxic if ingested. If someone touches the sap or eats the plant, they can expect a mild, itchy rash. Doctors suggest washing the affected area with soap and water. Apply a cool compress to ease itching.

If the sap of a poinsettia plant comes in contact with the eyes, they can become red and irritated as well. If this happens, flush the eyes with water.  Reactions to poinsettia plants are more common among people who have latex allergies because it and poinsettia plants share several proteins. Also, if you’re allergic to avocados, bananas, chestnuts, kiwis and passion fruits you might have a greater chance of being allergic to poinsettia plants. In case of a severe reaction, seek prompt medical attention.

Ingested poinsettia can lead to a mild stomachache, vomiting or diarrhea. In general, severe symptoms are unlikely. However, if children eat a poinsettia plant, clear and rinse their mouth. Pets, such as dogs, tend not to eat poinsettias, but keep watch, nevertheless.