The Legend of the Poinsettia as a Christmas Plant

How the Poinsettia Became a Symbol of the Holidays

December 22, 2020
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The poinsettia is 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 resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem. But how did this tropical plant become the quintessential Christmas flower across North America? Here’s the legend of the poinsettia.

You say poin-set-ee-uh, I say poin-set-uh—but let’s call the whole thing off because the name of the ubiquitous holiday plant can be pronounced either way.

America’s Most Popular Flowering

Aside from the Christmas tree itself, no plant symbolizes Christmas quite like the poinsettia. More than 2 million of them will be sold this year, making it the largest potted flower crop grown in the US.

There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias available in shades of red, pink, white, and yellow—solids, streaked, marbled, and multicolored. It makes it hard to pick just one!

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Some have even been treated with dyes, painted, or sprayed with glitter.

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One year, I took advantage of an open house at a local wholesale grower’s greenhouse to view the estimated 40,000 plants they had ready to be shipped out to stores in my region.

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Imagine acres of poinsettias in all colors and sizes!

Why Are Poinsettias the Christmas Flower?

The story of poinsettias as an unlikely Christmas flower begins with an old Mexican legend and, later, a major American business venture.

Poinsettias are native to a region of southern Mexico where they flower during the winter season. It’s a perennial shrub that was once considered a week and will grow 10 to 15 feet tall in the wild. The Aztecs used the poinsettia bracts to make a reddish-purple dye for fabrics and used the sap medicinally to control fevers. The colored “flowers” are actually specialized leaves called bracts, while the true flowers are inconspicuous beads found in the center of the bracts.

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. This is why red and green are the colors of Christmas today.

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The Namesake of the Poinsettia

Now, the reason blazing red (and now pink, white, orange, plus combinations of these colors) poinsettias are the Christmas flower in the United States is an accidental discovery by Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851), an American statesman and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1828. 

An amateur botanist, Poinsett saw the red flowers when visiting the Mexican town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero, shortly before he was thrown out of the country for trying to buy Texas from the Mexicans for a million dollars!

Poinsett was so impressed by the beauty of these plants that he sent cuttings back to his plantatio near Georgetown, South Carolina, where they were propagated and called the “Mexican Fire Plant.”  The plant was shared with botanical gardens and growers across the country. 

Soon, the plants became popular across the U.S. and were renamed for Mr. Poinsett.

But the reason poinsettias became so popular is due to Paul Ecke and his inventiveness. Ecke, who lived in California, discovered a technique which caused seedlings to branch, resulting in a fuller plant. He began growing the plant in the tens of thousands for the Christmas season, when other flowers were scarce.

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.

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The rest is history. Today, Poinsettias are not only the most popular Christmas plant, but the best-selling potted plant in the United States and Canada, contributing over $250 million to the U.S. economy at the retail level. California remains the top U.S. poinsettia-producing state.

For over 150 years, December 12 was considered National Poinsettia Day to honor the day of Poinsett’s death in 1851. In 2002, an Act of Congress made it official.

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How to Care for Poinsettias

To get off to a good start, protect your new plant from cold temperatures and chilling winds on the way home from the store. Remember that this is a tropical plant, so don’t leave it in a cold car while you run other errands.

At home, place it near a sunny window where it will get bright, indirect light for at least 6 hours a day. Keep it out of direct sun, though, which could fade the leaves. Avoid drafts, keeping temperatures between 65 and 70°F. Overwatering is a common cause of death, so water only when the soil is dry and don’t let the plant sit in water. No fertilizer is needed while the plant is in bloom.

See more advice on how to take care of poinsettias and other Christmas plants.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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