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Poinsettias - Aztecs, Colonialism and Marketing

Poinsettias - Aztecs, Colonialism and Marketing

Poinsettias are a Christmas staple, but how did they get here?

The first cultivations of 'Cuetlaxochitl' were by the Aztecs in Mexico (long before the European colonisation of the Americas) and were used medicinally or as a dye. The name 'Cuetlaxochitl' is said to mean "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure". So they've been dying prematurely on us for about a thousand years.

Later in the 16th Century, Franciscan friars gave it the Spanish name 'Flores de Noche Buena’, meaning 'the flowers of holy night (Christmas Eve)'. This was based off the legend that a young girl had nothing to present to the Baby Jesus and was guided by an angel to leave weeds at her church instead. Over the course of the night, the weeds bloomed and created beautiful red flowers.

Fast forward to the 19th Century and the first US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, is introduced to the Poinsettia, he loves it and sends some back to home to be cultivated in South Carolina. By 1833, the plant was given the common name Poinsettia. It's actually a type of Euphorbia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, for my fellow plant nerds.

Whilst Poinsettias were already associated with Christmas, the modern tradition is the result of four generations of hard work by the Ecke family. The first botanists to use a then secret grafting technique that allowed the plants to be strengthened and grown commercially.

In the 1950s, the family started to send free samples of their impressive Christmas coloured specimens to be used in television broadcasts and Paul Ecke Jr. even later appeared on The Tonight Show to promote them. Now they're everywhere. A stroke of marketing genius.

So that's a lot of history behind an often short lived plant. You can keep them all year round by the way, have a look on Gardener’s World for more info about that.