The Poinsettia: Sidney Shares Facts about a Festive Seasonal “Flower” 

What do “flor de nochebuena,” “Taxco del Alarcon,” “cuetlaxochitl,” Euphorbia pulcherrima” have in common? They are all names for the same plant: the Poinsettia.

The Aztecs called it “Cuetlaxochitl”. During the 14th – 16th centuries, the sap was used to control fevers, and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a colorful dye. Native to Central America and Mexico, the plant flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon, thus another name. Mexicans call this plant “flor de nochebuena” or “Christmas Eve flower.”

This story unfolds with Mexico’s first United States Ambassador (1825-1829). He saw brilliant red blooms growing next to a road and became enchanted with these plants. He took cuttings and brought them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Although he was trained in medicine and a congressman, his passion was botany. He began propagating and giving these unusual plants to friends and botanical gardens.

By 1836 the plant was being called by its more popular (common) name, after this amateur botanist who first brought the plant to the United States. His name, you may have guessed, was Joel Roberts Poinsett. Congress honored Mr. Poinsett by declaring December 12 National Poinsettia Day, commemorating the date of his death in 1851. An interesting aside about Mr. Poinsett is that he was instrumental in founding the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, a precursor of the Smithsonian Institution.

Botanical facts about euphorbia pulcherrima:

  • Poinsettias are part of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family which include a variety of shrubs, herbs, or cactus like specimens. Euphorbia milii, Crown of Thorns, is another example of a spurge.
  • Many plants in the Euphorbiaceae family ooze a milky sap. Some people with latex allergies have had a skin reaction after touching the leaves. For pets and people, the poinsettia sap may cause irritation or nausea.
  • Despite rumors to the contrary poinsettias are not poisonous. A study at Ohio State University showed that a 50- pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to have any harmful effect. Plus, poinsettia leaves have an awful taste. Keep your pets from snacking on poinsettia leaves which can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Poinsettias have been called the lobster flower and the flame-leaf flower, due to the red color. The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The yellow flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
  • There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available today ranging in colors like the traditional red, white, pink, burgundy, marbled and speckled.
  • In the Christian world, the shape of the poinsettia leaves or bracts are sometimes thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ.
  • The ancient Aztecs considered the white leaves to symbolize purity.

To learn more about Euphorbia pulcherrima, check out The University of Illinois Extension, the Poinsettia Pages.