Of all the potted plants sold at Christmastime the most popular is the poinsettia. More than 65 million are sold every year in the United States alone.  But do you know their origin?Poinsettias (euphorbia pulcherrima) are native to Mexico and Central America where they grow wild as a bush up to 3 metres high.  The Aztecs knew these plants as cuetlaxochi and considered them a symbol of purity. They used the milky sap to treat fever and the red bracts for dye.

In the 17th century Franciscan monks chose them for their Nativity procession because their bright colour in the winter months. A legend sprang up: a young girl, Pepita, was walking to mass on Christmas Eve unable to afford a gift for the Christ Child. Her cousin, Pedro, comforted her saying that any gift given in love would be acceptable in His eyes. She gathered some leaves from a straggly bush and humbly set them down. At that moment the leaves turned brilliant red and from that time on poinsettias have had red bracts. The flower became known as “Flor de Nochebuena”, or “Flower of the Holy Night”.

The bushes caught the eye of Joel R. Poinsettia, the first American ambassador to Mexico , 1825 to 1829.  Poinsettia, a scientist and botanist, sent some plants home to South Carolina, thus introducing them into the States and giving them their name. He propagated them for his personal collection and started giving them to friends and to botanical gardens. Soon, the cut flowers appeared for Christmas sale in Philadelphia and New York.

The modern era of poinsettia culture began in 1923 when the “Oak Leaf” cultivar was introduced. This was the first cultivar to retain leaves on the flower stem. Wild plants bloom on leggy naked stems. In 1930 pink, white and variegated cultivars appeared as well as double varieties.

Until 1950 the flowers were sold as cut flowers or grown as shrubs. Since 1960 the many new cultivars have adapted the plant to growth in pots indoors. To-day their bright bracts say Christmas and light up the dark December days.


By Helen Gordon , Kitchener Master Gardener