The Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, originates from Mexico and has strong Christmas traditions. The US Congress declared Poinsettia Day as 12th December every year. The Poinsettia has huge economic importance as the most favoured pot plant in both the US and Canada. A charming Christmas story surrounds the plant in Mexico. Today also coincides with Catholic festivities for the Day of the Virgin of Guadelupe in Mexico City.
The Poinsettia was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851). He was an amateur botanist, as well as serving as the first US ambassador to Mexico. It seems that despite his best diplomatic intentions, his efforts were not always appreciated by the Mexicans. They even coined a new word to reflect his behaviour: poinsettismo to describe officious and intrusive behaviour. His horticultural efforts with the Poinsettia appear greatly appreciated to this day. He cultivated the plant and sent it back to the US.
The Aztec name for the plant was Cuitlaxochitl. I came across several different meanings. One version describes a pure but mortal flower that withers. Another suggestion is star flower. If you look at the plant from above, you can see the flower’s resemblance to a star. The Aztecs cultivated the plant as a gift from the gods. Modern-day plant breeders have developed a wide range of Poinsettia colours. The true Christmas colour is red. The star arrangement is said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem and the red colour represents Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion.
Mexican Christmas Legend
A 16th Century Mexican legend tells how a poor girl was embarrassed that she had no gift to take to church for Jesus on Christmas Eve. She collected weeds from the roadside. When she placed them at the altar, they blossomed into beautiful Poinsettia. Thus, the Poinsettia came to be known as the Flor de Nochebuena, the Christmas Eve flower.
Our Lady of Guadelupe Day
December 12th 2020 is also Our Lady of Guadelupe Day in Mexico. It relates to another botanical miracle in 1531. Juan Diego saw the Virgin Mary on successive occasions. She told him to ask the bishop to build a church on a hill. The bishop asked for a miracle as proof. When he returned to the hill, Juan Diego saw non-native roses where previously there had been cacti. The bishop was convinced and the church was built. The day is celebrated as a religious festival in Mexico, although the date does not always coincide with Poinsettia Day as this year.
Bracts not Flowers
It is interesting to note that the assumed red flowers of Poinsettia are in fact bracts (modified leaves). The more modest flowers appear in the centre and are yellow. Poinsettia is a member of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. The epithet means most beautiful. Euphorbia flowers are known as cyathia or false flowers.
Pest and Diseases
Most Poinsettias do not seem to last much beyond the Christmas period in our homes. They are the unfortunate hosts of a wide range of pest and diseases. Grower’s Secret list:
- Gray Mould, Botrytis cinerea
- Powdery Mildew, Oidium sp.
- Poinsettia Scab, Spaceloma poinsettiae
- Alternaria Leaf Spot and Cutting Rot, Alternaria euphorbiicola, A. euphorbiae
- Erwinia Blight and Cutting Rot, Erwinia carotovora
- Xanthomonas Leaf Spot, Xanthomonas campestris pv. poinsetticola
- Pythium Root Rot, Pythium irregulare, P. ultimum, P. aphanidermatum
- Phytophthora Root, Crown, Leaf, Bract, Flower Blight, Phytophthora nicotianae, P. drechsleri
- Rhizoctonia Stem Rot, Rhizoctonia solani
- Crown and Root Rot
We should also add Tobacco Whitefly, Bemisia tobaci, to that long list.
Homo sapiens Risk
One of the biggest risks to the survival of Christmas Poinsettias is perceived as Homo sapiens. Over-indulgence in egg nog over the festive season is seen as the root cause. This leads the species to neglect to water or overwater. There is also a tendency to place the plant too close to the fire or radiator. Due care and attention may see your Poinsettia survive until next Christmas.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Benson, D. Michael et al. (2002): The History and Diseases of Poinsettia, the Christmas Flower. Plant Health Progress. PMN International.
- Chun, Wesley (2016): The Twelve Diseases of Christmas Poinsettia and Their Cures. Grower’s Secret. 20 December 2016
- Cooper, James (2000-2020): Poinsettias at Christmas. WhyChristmas.com
- DEFRA (2018): Bemisia tabaci: risk to Poinsettia. Plant Health Portal.
- Hartman, John R. & Kaiser, Cheryl A. (2010): Poinsettia Diseases. Plant Pathology Fact Sheet. University of Kentucky – College of Agriculture. May 2010
- iExplore (?): Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe: An Important Mexican Celebration. Festivals/Events.
- National Today (2017-2020): National Poinsettia Day – December 12, 2020.
- Pletcher, Kenneth (2020): Joel R. Poinsett. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 27 February 2020.
- John ? (?): Poinsettia Day. History.
- Seltzer, Erica D. & Spinner, MaryAnne (2020): Poinsettia Facts. The Poinsettia Pages. University of Illinois Extension.
- Time and Date.com (1995-2020): Day of the Virgin of Guadelupe in Mexico
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