The World's Best-Selling Pot Plant

12th December 2014

Go to any garden centre in December and you’ll find it over-run with Poinsettias.

Grace Fuller finds out more about the plant’s long history and links to Christmas.

Native to Central America, where it flourishes particularly well in southern Mexico, the Poinsettia (botanical name: Euphorbia pulcherrima) was long known by its Aztec name of Cuetlaxochitl. For the Aztecs the plant was not only beautiful, and beloved for its purity, but practical as well. The milky white sap, today called latex, was prized as a fever medicine, and the bracts (the modified leaves that give the plant its colour) were used to make a reddish/ purplish dye, used both for textiles and cosmetics.

The Poinsettia first became associated with Christmas in the 17th century when a group of Franciscan priests, near Taxco in Mexico, began to use its flowers in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that it began to become known outside its immediate region, due, oddly, to the efforts of an American diplomat. Joel Roberts Poinsett, son of a French physician, was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Although he was a medical school graduate, Poinsett’s real passion was for botany, and at home in Greenville, South Carolina, he had his own hothouses. When he encountered the dramatic wild Cuetlaxochitl, he couldn’t resist taking a few cuttings. The flowers are small and insignificant, but he was won over by the beauty of the coloured bracts. Back from his posting, in 1829, he began to propagate the plant, and was soon able to pass samples on to botanical gardens and to friends interested in horticulture. Commercial production began in 1828, and by the mid 1830s Poinsettias were on sale as cut ‘flowers’ in New York and Philadelphia at Christmas.

The Poinsettia really came into its own in the 20th century, however, through the efforts of the Ecke family in southern California. Their programme of selection and breeding produced smaller, more vigorous cultivars that keep their leaves longer. In the wild the Poinsettia reaches heights of up to 10 feet, but by the 1950s the potential of selling it as a house plant had been recognised, and the cultivation work was yielding plants in many different colours – from pink to burgundy, from creamy white to yellow.

Red still sells best though, especially for Christmas…

The legend of Pepita

Pepita, a poor Mexican peasant-child, had no gift to lay at the Christ Child’s crib at Midnight Mass. As she walked to church with her cousin, her heart was filled with sadness. Suddenly, an angel appeared to her, and told her to gather a handful of weeds from the side of the road as an impromptu bouquet. Pepita obeyed. She remained ashamed, even so, and her cousin, to console her, said that even the humblest offering, made with love, is acceptable in God’s eyes.

Pepita remembered his words as she approached the altar, and felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay her ‘flowers’ at the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red – a Christmas miracle marvelled at by all who were there. From that day on, the bright red flowers – today called Poinsettia – were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year, on the same roadside spot, during the Christmas season.

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