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Poinsettia, the flower of the Holy Night

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Poinsettia (Callie Jones)

Poinsettias are a familiar sight at this time of year. They are bought as decorative Christmas gifts for their showy red and green foliage but are usually consigned to compost or dustbin as they fade into the new year.

Their connection with Christmas, however, predates the modern commercial festive season and has its roots in Mexican folklore.

The name poinsettia covers several spurges of the genus Euphorbia, but the species we all know is Euphorbia pulcherrima, a native of Mexico and central America. In the wild, it may grow to two metres and the bright red “petals” are in fact leafy bracts surrounding small yellow terminal flowers and contrasting with the green leaves. Cultivated plants are grown to 30–60cm and potted for seasonal sale.

The Aztecs called poinsettias cuetlaxochitl, and extracted from the bracts a reddish purple dye for colouring fabric. The sap was made into a medicine and used as a refrigerant. Contemporary reports suggest that ingestion of the leaves can cause abdominal cramps.

The plants were highly prized by Montezuma, the last king of the Aztecs. He was frustrated by their failure to grow naturally at the high altitude of his capital, modern day Mexico City, so he had cultivated specimens transported in caravans for decorative use.

The plant derives its English name from that of the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, who so admired it that in 1828 he took specimens back to the US for cultivation. Poinsettia Day, on 12 December, marks the anniversary of Poinsett’s death.

In recent years the plant has been a source of some tension between the US and Mexico, because US quarantine laws prohibit the import of Mexican soil into the US, and Mexican plantsmen are deprived of a potential market of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Poinsettia’s Christmas connection comes from a Mexican legend which tells of a peasant girl who could not afford a gift to honour the Virgin Mary at the Christmas Eve service and was instructed by an angel to pick some weeds as the offering. She reluctantly did so, proceeded to the church and placed the weeds on the altar, whereupon they were transformed into flame-red and green poinsettias.

Legend has it that ever since that miracle poinsettias have adorned homes and churches throughout Mexico, giving the plant its Mexican name of nochebuena, or Christmas Eve plant.

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