Tradition of Christmas: Poinsettias

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Poinsettias were first noticed by the Aztecs. They used the plant to produce red dye and medication. In their native language the plant is referred to as “that flower that grows in residues.”

The poinsettia is now considered a Christmas plant
The poinsettia is now considered a Christmas plant

The traditional legend says that at some point around the 16th Century, a poor Mexican girl found beautiful weeds growing a long the road.  She picked them and placed them in front of Christ manger as a humble birthday present.  By some divine spirit the leaves turned red.  The legend was soon carried from Mexico and the blooms in October symbolized the coming of the Christmas season.

By the 17th Century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.

Today in Mexico and other South American countries the flower is referred to as Flor de Noche Buena or the Christmas Eve flower.

In Spain, it is known as their Easter flower.

Joel Robert Poinsett
Joel Robert Poinsett

The plant is named after President Van Buren’s secretary of state, Joel Robert Poinsett.  {He was also the first United States Minister to Mexico}.  According to legend, he was known for butting into everyone else’s business and when he attended a Christmas Eve service while in Mexico he shipped these seeds to his hometown of Charleston, SC.  As a horticulturist, he worked with the seeds to create the various colors and started giving them to churches and dignitaries at Christmas.

The star shaped leaf pattern of the plant are seen as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. The red color is seen to represents the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion.

In 1900, Albert Ecke, a Germany emigrant living in Los Angeles, became intrigued by the plant.  He opened an orchard and dairy in the Eagle Rock area and sold the plant from street stands.  His son, Paul, developed the grafting technique.  Albert’s

Poinsettias now come in a variety of colors
Poinsettias now come in a variety of colors

grandson, Paul Ecke, Jr. advanced the association between the plant and Christmas.

Part of his promotion was to appear on National TV specials to promote the plant and send free plants to television stations for them to display while on the air.

A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, somewhat weedy look. The Eckes’ technique made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant.

Poinsettias are now popular Christmas decorations across North America and even other parts of the world.  People display the plants in homes, offices, churches, stores and elsewhere.  December 12th is National Poinsettia Day.

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