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The Story of the Poinsettia

JoAnne Skelly
For the Nevada Appeal
Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealThe poinsetta has many legends that link the brilliant red plant to Christmas.
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A weed in its native land of Mexico, how did the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, come to represent Christmas?

One legend claims that a poor Mexican girl, Pepita, had no gift to give the Christ Child at Christmas services. This made her very sad. Her cousin Pedro saw her crying and said that even a humble gift, if given in love, is acceptable. So, Pepita stopped by the side of the road and picked a bouquet of weeds to bring to the chapel. When she placed them at the nativity scene, people in the church laughed at her. However, when the weeds burst into brilliant red color, everyone knew they had seen a miracle. To this day, poinsettias are known as Las Flores de Noche Buena – the Flowers of the Holy Night (Paul Ecke Ranch Nursery).

Another story I heard says that the actual flowers of the poinsettia, those tiny yellow things at the center of all the colorful bracts or leaflike structures, represent the crown of thorns and so remind people of the true meaning of Christmas. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.

In the 1600s, Franciscan priests in Mexico noticed that poinsettias bloomed at Christmas time. Because of their vibrant colors, they used them in their nativity procession and celebration. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, brought cuttings back to America in 1828 and raised them in his greenhouse. He shared them with friends and other gardeners who loved their colorful novelty. As more people saw this beautiful plant, its popularity grew. It was widely introduced by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society in honor of J.R. Poinsett.

The Aztecs used the red bracts of the poinsettia for dyes. They also applied the milky sap to burns and used it to treat fevers. They felt the plant represented purity. According to the Mayo Clinic, poinsettias are not poisonous. Contact with the milky sap can cause a mild, itchy rash. Eating the leaves or stems may cause a stomach ache, vomiting or diarrhea. Reactions vary with an individual’s sensitivity to latex.

As you enjoy this season filled with colorful poinsettias, decorated trees and beautifully wrapped presents, remember that even the simplest gift, when given in love, brings back the true meaning of these holidays – peace and harmony for all.

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at skellyj@unce.unr.edu or 887-2252.