At Christmas it’s common to see poinsettia plants dotted around shops and homes, providing a welcome splash of festive colour. You could be forgiven for thinking that the poinsettia has always been associated with Christmas in the UK, but not so!
Aztec people use the plant to produce red dye and as an medication to reduce fever.Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as Flor de Nochebuena, which means Christmas Eve Flower. In Chile and Peru, the plant became known as Crown of the Andes.
The poinsettia is a plant that is indigenous to Mexico. It is particularly well known for its red and green foliage and is widely used in Christmas floral displays. It derives its common English name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first United States Minister to Mexico, and who introduced the plant to the US in 1825.
The coloured bracts—which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled—are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colours, but are actually leaves. The colours of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change colour. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest colour.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where legend tells of a girl, commonly called Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday and was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
There is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf.
While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild. Though its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.