Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 23, 2016

Christmas and the poinsettia

Fiery poinsettias line the shelves of nurseries, grocery stores and department stores at this time of year. When I see them, I always slow down to get a better look. Of course, they also come in pink, white, yellow and even marbled varieties. But although I’d like to buy several, I usually buy just one. Set on our dining room table with the green tablecloth, the color of the plant really pops.

I’ve always been drawn to the plant, but only recently learned about National Poinsettia Day. In July of 2002, the House of Representatives selected Dec. 12 as the day to honor Paul Ecke, Jr., who is considered the father of the U.S. poinsettia industry. At the wholesale level alone, poinsettias today contribute $250 million to the U.S. economy.

But the history of the lovely Christmas flower is much older and it has had more than just an economic impact through the years.

The plant is native to Mexico, where the Aztecs called it the “Cuetlaxochitl” - ket-la-sho-she - that apparently means “Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.” During the 14th-16th centuries, they used the sap to control fevers, and the bracts - the modified leaves that turn red - to make a purplish-reddish dye for textiles and cosmetics.

In 1833, a German botanist gave it the scientific name Euphorbia pulcherrima - the first word honoring the Greek physician Euphorbus, while the second means beautiful.

But the name we know it by is linked to American botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was also the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828, Poinsett sent cuttings of some plants in southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. It was first introduced into cultivation and commercial trade by Bartram’s Garden on June 6, 1829 at an exhibition of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Historian and horticulturist William Hickling Prescott wanted to honor Poinsett for his many achievements in government and horticulture. So in 1837, he gave the beautiful Euphorbia pulcherrima its common name - poinsettia.

The version native to Mexico and other parts of Latin America is a somewhat straggly shrub that can grow up to 16 feet in height. When I lived in San José, Costa Rica, a several-foot-high poinsettia tree grew across from my apartment. I was amazed that the flower I had known as a small potted plant could grow so tall. Sister Gaila, who lives in La Paz, Bolivia, had a poinsettia tree growing at the corner of her former home.

In Mexico, the plant is sometimes called flor de fuego (fire flower) and flor de Navidad (Christmas flower.) It is displayed in celebration of the Dec. 12 Day of the Virgin. The use of the plant to celebrate Christmas dates to the 17th century, where legend tells of a little girl who was too poor to provide a gift for Baby Jesus.

“The Legend of the Poinsettia” by Tomie dePaola - a book husband Art and I gave to our girls when they were little - tells one version. A little girl named Lucida from a small village, was ashamed because she had nothing to present to the Baby Jesus. Watching the priest and townspeople going into the church on Christmas Eve, she noticed an old woman by the side of the road. The old woman told the girl “any gift is beautiful because it is given.” Noticing some weeds growing by the side of the road, Lucida gathered an armful and walked into the church, placing them next to the manger with Baby Jesus.

After lowering her head to pray, she heard people in the church begin to whisper. When she looked up, she discovered:

Each weed was tipped with a flaming red star. The manger glowed and shimmered as if lit by a hundred candles. When everyone went outside after the Mass, all the clumps of tall green weeds throughout the town were shining with red stars. Lucida’s simple gift had indeed become beautiful. And every Christmas to this day, the red stars shine on top of green branches in Mexico. The people call the plant la Flor de Nochebuena - the Flower of the Holy Night - the poinsettia.

There has also been some disagreement as to how to pronounce the name. One horticulturist said most people in his field would insist on pronouncing it with four syllables - poyn-set-ee-ah - because it has the “ia” at the end. He noted, however, that there is at least one documented case where Poinsett himself wrote the word “poinsetta.” Dictionary.com has the four-syllable version as its first choice, but recognizes the shorter version as well.

So I guess no matter how you pronounce it, the plant is a lovely way to bring color into your home during the dark, cold days of winter.

Left: a younster plays near the poinsettia tree at Gaila's former home in La Paz, Bolivia; right: Katie is holding two dove ornaments while standing before a different type of poinsettia tree.

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