From Aztec Temples to Target Shelves, The Ancient Origins of Poinsettias
It’s the start of Christmas, and the bright red color of Poinsettias, or Flores de Pascua, are in full bloom. Their colors brighten up supermarkets, bodegas, and flower stalls.
Flaming red Christmas trees made of Poinsettias grace the foyers of upscale hotels. Rows of the potted shrubs adorn restaurants, shopping malls, and almost every shop window you pass by.
But, even though Poinsettias today are as familiar as Santa Claus, did you know they hark back to the Aztecs and the Mayas?
How did these yellow-hearted flowers with red bracts atop green leaves become the preferred Christmas adornment worldwide? Even more, how did they become the most popular potted plant in the United States, selling approximately 35 million annually?
A beautiful and resilient plant
The scientific name for Poinsettias is Euphorbia pulcherrima. They are native to the tropical forests of Central America and Mexico, specifically an area in the south known as the Taxco del Alarcon. There, they grow in rock-filled canyons.
These open-hearted plants, which come in full bloom in December, were grown by the Aztecs and the Mayas long before Europeans knew they existed. In their native region, the flower is known as Flor de Pascua, Estrella Federal, Flor de Nadal, Pastora, Corona del Inca, and Pascuero.
Its Náhuatl name is Cuetlaxochitl, meaning “flor que se marchita” — a flower that withers. The Mayans called them K’alul Wits or ember flower.
You can find the earliest references to this beautiful flower in ancient Mexican codices collected by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in his book “General History of the Things of New Spain, published in 1577.
In it, de Sahagún describes the plant as having leaves that are “very red and pliable,” according to a translation of the ancient text. He added that even though they weren’t fragrant, they were “beautiful, and that’s why they’re prized.”
Both the Aztecs and the Mayans believed in the flower’s practical and magical uses
Aztec Caciques such as Netzahualocoyotl and Montezuma placed a high value on the plant, believing it symbolized purity and represented the lives of warriors who died in battle.
The Aztecs utilized the plant to make a purplish and red dye for garments and beauty products. The flower’s milky sap wax also created a concoction for medicine to treat fevers and increase milk in nursing mothers.
The Mayans believed that boiled parts of the flower would remedy gynecological hemorrhaging in women. They also used it to curse snakebites by boiling the root into a potion.
After Spain conquered the Mesoamerican region in the 17th century, Franciscan friars decorated the altar with the flaming flower and renamed it “Flor de Nochebuena.” It was a way to “evangelize” the native population and tie the flower to the birth of Christ.
According to local legend, a young girl called Pepita was on her way to church on Christmas Eve but was too poor to buy flowers. She picked a bunch of weeds that grew locally on the side of the road and placed them on the altar as an offering for baby Jesus.
As the weeds touched the altar, they bloomed into colorful Cuetlaxochitl; thus, a tradition was born.
But how did Pepita’s flowers become the Poinsettias of today?
In 1828, the flower was taken from Mexico to the United States by then-U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett. He cultivated them in his South Carolina greenhouse and began gifting them to his friends, who fell in love with the plant.
Less than ten years after arriving on US shores, this botanical marvel became known by the name of the man who had transported it and also co-founded the Smithsonian Institute: Poinsettia.
Yet, there is an unsettling issue. Joel Roberts has a rather disturbing legacy as a participant in the displacement of Native Americans and an enslaver.
So, it would be best if, instead of Poinsettia, the plant be called by its true name – Cuetlaxochitl.