Christmas is here! For many of us, this is one of the biggest holidays of the year and a chance to indulge in festive merrymaking. We decorate houses, prepare lavish meals, and celebrate with friends and family. Of the many traditions which appear during the Christmas season, one the most popular yet least discussed is the humble poinsettia. These colorful plants are a common part of Christmas décor, yet most of us know very little about them. We here at Gardzen got curious and did a little research, and as it turns out the poinsettia is a fascinating plant with a rich history. So, in the spirit of the season, let’s dig in!
First, a word or two about nomenclature. The poinsettia is a plant of many names, depending on language and reason. The Aztecs called it Cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-shil)—a lovely name still used by contemporary Nahuatl speakers—while in Mexican Spanish the plant is known as la flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower). Perhaps confusingly, in Spain it’s known as la flor de la Pascua, or Easter Flower. It has other names across South America, the Caribbean, and Europe, but that’s enough to keep track of for now! While there’s a push to use the native name cuetlaxochitl as the common name for the plant, we’ll be sticking with poinsettia for purposes of clarity and familiarity.
As the original name suggests, poinsettias are native to what is now Mexico and Central America, and were first cultivated by the Aztecs. In addition to their beauty, the Aztecs found many other uses for the poinsettia, including as a dye for clothing, as an anti-fever medicine, and as a hedge or natural fence. The plant was introduced to the United States in the early 19th century by the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, after whom it is named.
While poinsettias aren’t often found in the wild these days, their natural habitat are the hot, seasonally dry forests of the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America. Poinsettias grow best in loose, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Over-fertilizing and over-watering are common problems when cultivating poinsettia, and both can lead to problem s including fungal infections, powdery mildew, and root rot. These plants do like to be warm, so keep your indoor poinsettias between 65F and 70F(18C and 21C). While in the US and Canada we typically encounter poinsettias as container plants, in the wild or when grown outdoors they actually become large shrubs or small trees.
So how did the poinsettia become a Christmas plant? That tradition actually predates the United States, having its roots in 16th century Mexico. Poinsettias were popularly used as Christmas alter flowers in colonial churches, with the colorful leaves said to represent the Star of Bethlehem. The custom of displaying poinsettias at Christmastime spread during the 19th century and is now common in both North America and Europe. As a result of this Yuletide popularity, the poinsettia is now the most cultivated flower in the world.
Briefly, we need to touch on some safety issues around poinsettias. While there is a strong popular belief that the poinsettia is poisonous to the point that eating one leaf could kill a person or a pet, the reality is that poinsettias aren’t especially toxic While neither you nor your pets should ingest them, the worst that’s likely to happen is an upset stomach and a rash. We’re including links to the National Capital Poison Center and the Pet Poison Helpline for more information, and we hope you’ll take the time to educate yourself as to the actual risks of poinsettias. Of course, when in doubt you should contact poison control or your emergency veterinarian just to be on the safe side, but this particular plant is unlikely to cause a problem.
This blog was especially interesting to write. It gave us a chance to learn more about a very popular plant, and discover the rich history of its journey from Aztec gardens to our Christmas decorations. Whether you call it a poinsettia, a cuetlaxochitl, flor de Nochebuena, we hope this wonderful plant is part of your holiday season this year.
And from all of us at Gardzen: Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating!