The extraordinary story of an ordinary plant: the Christmas Poinsettia

From the gift-giving customs to the decorations, the American Christmas is a combination of elements from the many diverse cultures that have left their influence on the country over the centuries. While the European origins of the evergreen Christmas tree and of Saint Nicholas’ transformation into the American Santa Claus are more well known, what of the poinsettia? As Bruce David Forbes notes in America’s Favorite Holidays, the holiday flower’s roots are surprisingly close to home– and surprisingly humble.

Originating in Mexico and well-known to the Aztecs, the iconic red petals of this beautiful winter bloom are, in actuality, leaves–the real flowers are the yellow buds in the center. “What is significant is that the plant comes to full bloom in December, responding to reduced sunlight,” writes Forbes, “and thus it is an ideal symbol or decoration for winter celebrations.”

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“So, on December 25, when Christians remembered the nativity of Jesus, this flower was blooming in Mexico. A touching folktale arose about a little peasant girl who wanted to bring a gift to the Christ child but, in tears, realized that she had nothing beautiful enough to offer. Nevertheless she brought a handful of ordinary weeds to the cradle of the baby Jesus, and in a miracle he turned them into brilliant red flowers. Thus the plants received the name flores de Nochebuena, or flowers of the Holy Night.

It so happens that the first United States ambassador to Mexico was an amateur botanist. His name was Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, and he was instrumental in bringing cuttings of the plant back to the United States in about 1828.”

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“Today, according to the Society of American Florists, Christmas and Hanukkah constitute the number one floral-buying holiday in the United States (more than Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day), and of the flowering plants purchased in the Christmas season, about three-fourths are poinsettias.” What a legacy for an “ordinary” plant!

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For more about the history of Christmas and other iconic American celebrations, check out Bruce David Forbes’ America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Historiesavailable now.