Poinsettia: The Christmas Flower

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Can you name this plant?  In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called cuitlaxochitl, which means “star flower.” In both Chile and Peru, it is known as “Crown of the Andes.”  In the United
States, people celebrate the national day of this plant on December 12.

I guess if you don’t know it, then I have to tell you the answer then: poinsettia.  It is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific
coast of Mexico to Chiapas, Guatemala and as far south as Nicaragua. It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas and in temperate North Central
Nicaragua.  Red is very common although there are also orange, pale green, cream and marbled leaves.

In nature, poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that can grow to ten feet tall.  The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think are the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified
leaves).  The flowers of the poinsettia are in the center of the colorful bracts. Poinsettias are priced according to the number of blooms. The more blooms, the more expensive the plant.

Because of its brilliant color, the poinsettia was a symbol of purity to the Indians. It was highly prized by both King Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma, but because of the high altitude climate, the plant could not be grown in their capital that is now Mexico City. The Indians used poinsettia bracts to make a reddish-purple dye. They also made a medicine for fever from the plant’s latex.

During the 17th century, a group of Franciscan priests settled near Taxco. They began to use the poinsettia in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a native procession. Juan Balme, a botanist of the same
period, mentioned the poinsettia plant in his writings. He described it as having large green leaves and a small flower surrounded by bracts, almost as if for protection. The bracts, he said, turned a
brilliant red.

All over the world, it is known as a flower that symbolizes Christmas, the day when Jesus Christ was born.  Its association with the Nativity happened in Mexico during the 16th century.  According to a legend, a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday was told by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar.  Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.

Another legend has it that the poinsettia became associated with Christmas because the Mexicans regarded it as symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem.

From the 17th century, Franciscan monks in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.

The name “poinsettia” is named after Joel Robert Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825.  Scientifically, it is known as Euphorbia
pulcherrima
.

There are some misconceptions that poinsettias are toxic.  The origin of this could be found in the fact that most plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic and also because the name of the plant seems to refer to the word poison.

In the United States, the misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.  While it is true that the plant is not very toxic, those sensitive to latex may suffer an allergic reaction and it is therefore not advisable to bring the plants into the home of sensitive individuals.

In a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposures were electronically analyzed. 98.9% of the exposures were accidental with 93.9% involving children, 96.1% of the exposed patients were not treated in a health care facility and 92.4% did not require any type of therapy.

Poinsettia sap can irritate the skin and cause an upset stomach if consumed in large enough quantities.  A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50 pound child who ate 500 bracts might have a slight tummy ache.

In the United States, growing Poinsettia is a big industry, representing about 85% of potted plant Christmas season sales.  The US exports about 90% of the world’s poinsettia plants.  It is thought
that poinsettia is grown commercially in greenhouses in all 50 states and over 60 million plants are produced for sale. — ###

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