Wild in the highlands of Central America, reaching a height of up to five metres, grows a vibrant plant known as Flores de Noche Buena – ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’. Treasured by Mexico’s people, it was first put to use by the Aztecs, adorning temples with its intense symbolism. Steeped in legend, it has since garnered a varied and celebrated global reputation, most notably as a favourite festive houseplant commonly known as the poinsettia.
Blood of an Aztec goddess
The Aztecs, who lived in today’s Mexico between the 14th and 16th Centuries, called the poinsettia plant Cuetlaxochitl, which means ‘leather flower’.
It was used to embellish temples, and was seen as a symbol of new life for warriors who had fallen in battle, and also provided a healing plant and coloured dye. Aztec legend says that Cuetlaxochitl was the favourite flower of Montezuma, the Aztec ruler. He believed the
red stain on its upper leaves came from the blood of an Aztec goddess who died of a broken heart. His legend spread all the way to Europe, where it most likely inspired the poinsettia’s French name; Étoile d’amour, or Star of Love.
Flores de Noche Buena: Pepita’s magic gift
Mexico’s conquest by the Spaniards at the start of the 16th century heralded the collapse of Aztec culture. As a result, Cuetlaxochitl became Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night. At this point the poinsettia gained another tale that would stick for years to come. It’s told that a little girl named Pepita was too poor to buy a real present for baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. So instead she picked green twigs from a shrub on her way to church and tied them into a bouquet. When she placed her gift at the foot of the altar, suddenly the twigs bloomed in a magnificent red. And so it’s said the poinsettia’s Mexican name originated; Flores de Noche Buena, and it became the country’s official Christmas flower.
Mr Poinsett’s favourite plant
Over 2,000 years later, in 1804, the first poinsettia plant reached Europe, travelling with Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Catalogued in Berlin, it was named Euphorbia pulcherrima; translated as the most beautiful of the Euphorbiaceae family. In 1828, the American ambassador in Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought poinsettias to the USA. In his honour, the plant was given itsname ‘poinsettia’. Poinsett died on 12thDecember 1952, and since then, the day of his death has been known as Poinsettia Day.
To Hollywood Boulevard and beyond
Jump another thousand years ahead and meet a German family named Ecke, living in the US. Fascinated by the red plants growing wild near his Southern Californian farm, Paul Ecke attempted to cultivate the poinsettia and scored his first success by selling fresh-cut poinsettia twigs, marketing them as Christmas flowers, along the Sunset and Hollywood boulevards in Los Angeles. Soon, Ecke was growing poinsettias on a bigger scale and distributing them as cut flowers across the country, and later, began offering them as potted plants.By the 1950’s growers in Germany had begun selling poinsettia houseplants, and in the years that followed, they’d conqueredChristmas living rooms here and abroad forevermore. To date there are around 150 different types of poinsettia, with more added every year. Varieties distinguish themselves through growth habit, size and leaf shape.