The Finer Points of Poinsettias

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My mother had a brown thumb. She was very talented at things like typing (90 wpm!), speaking perfect conversational Spanish, and throwing one heck of a party. But gardening was just not her thing. In fact, one year for her birthday my brother Dub and I chipped in and bought her a book entitled, Plants You Can’t Kill. Of course, being a super mom and a very gracious lady, she opened the package and exclaimed, “Awww, thank you so much. It’s exactly what I wanted!” Yeah, right.

But as soon as Thanksgiving was over each year, for my mom, a botanical miracle occurred. While Daddy was climbing into the attic to pull down ornaments, snowmen, nativity scenes and Santas, Mama was as the local garden nursery buying poinsettias. She loved them and believe it or not, amazingly, both of her thumbs turned green as she managed to keep them all alive throughout the holidays. We always had a gazillion of them placed strategically around the house in shiny foil-covered buckets. And that wasn’t all. We had poinsettia tablecloths, glasses, decorations for the tree, plates and even bath towels. One year she hit pay dirt and came home from the A&P grocery store with poinsettia toilet paper. While most people complain that their family trees have a few nuts, or lemons, or even bad apples, ours was no different, with the exception that every December each crazy branch was smothered in poinsettia leaves.   

My mother loved Christmas…and poinsettias!

Fast forward about…gulp…50 years.

Last week my son, Scott, came to visit us at our housesit here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There’s nothing like being in Mexico for the holiday season, and the magical charm of San Miguel lavishly delivered in a special way for the three of us.  Decorated trees, lights and bigger-than-life ornaments were festively scattered throughout each park and walkway. 

As we strolled, I couldn’t help but think back on all the childhood memories of Mama and Christmases past, because every store, street, park and restaurant was adorned with scads of dazzling poinsettias. They were everywhere, planted right in the ground.

So, it got me to thinking about why the poinsettia is so prevalent this time of year. I knew that they originated here in Mexico, but that’s about all.  So I did a little research and thought that I’d share it with you. I found it fascinating and I hope you do too.

Statue of General Ignacio Allende in San Miguel de Allende

History of the Poinsettia

Poinsettias have been around here in Mexico for centuries. The Aztecs called them “cuetlaxochitl” and used the sap (called latex) to control fevers and the bracts (the colorful leaves) to make a reddish dye. Montezuma, the last Aztec king, had them brought by caravan into the region around Mexico City, because he couldn’t get them to grow in the high altitude.

Centuries later Karl Ludwig Wilenow, a German botanist, named the plant euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “very beautiful.” A poinsettia plant grew though a crack in his greenhouse and he was dazzled by its vivid color and beauty.

In the 1820s, President John Quincy Adams appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett was a physician, congressman and a plant enthusiast. During his time in Mexico, he wandered the country looking for interesting new plant species. In 1828, he happened upon a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing on the side of a road. He took cuttings from the plant and transplanted them to his greenhouse in South Carolina.  Even though he had an outstanding career as a United States Congressman and ambassador, he will always be remembered as the man who introduced the poinsettia to the United States.

Later, as the plant became more popular in the U. S., William H. Prescott, a prominent historian for Mexican history, was asked to give the euphorbia pulcherrima a new name. He had just completed a book called The Conquest of Mexico where he chronicled Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. Thus, he named the plant “poinsettia” in his honor.

In the early 1900s, the Ecke family of Southern California grew poinsettias outdoors for use as landscape plants, as well as, cut flowers. Eventually, they started growing them in greenhouses and today the Eckes are the leading producers of poinsettias in the United States.

Poinsettias adorn parks in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Little Known Facts about Poinsettias

You’d think, with a childhood surrounded by poinsettias, I’d be an expert on the plant. Au contraire! Here’s a few new facts that I’ve learned about this splendid plant.

  • They are not poisonous.
    I’d always heard to not let your pets or babies close to poinsettias, because they could die from ingesting a leaf or the sap. A study at Ohio State University disproved this. The OSU botanists showed that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to have any permanent harmful effect. Plus, poinsettias taste awful. Eating the leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but they won’t kill you.
  • They are sappy.
    Poinsettias ooze a milky sap called latex. People that are allergic to latex (like latex gloves) can have a bad skin reaction just by touching the leaves. Small pets may also have a mild reaction to the sap.
  • They have showy leaves.
    The showy colorful parts or poinsettias are leaves, not flowers. They are called bracts. Poinsettias have also been called the lobster flower because of the flame-red color.
  • They are tall.
    In Mexico the poinsettia is a perennial shrub that can grow up to 15 feet tall.
  • They are multi-faceted.
    There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available today. They have been botanically engineered to produce many colors, but the most traditional ones are red, white, pink, burgundy and speckled.
  • They are popular.
    The Ecke Ranch in California grows over 70% of all poinsettias purchased in the United States, and about 50% worldwide. Poinsettia sales contribute over 250 million to the U.S. economy each year. They are the best-selling potted plant in the U.S., as well as, Canada.
  • They have their own day.
    December 12th is Poinsettia Day, marking the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.
  • They are multi-cultural.
    Originally, the Aztecs called poinsettias Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, for residue and xochitl, for flower) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” Today in Mexico and Guatamala they are known as “La Flor de la Nochebuena” meaning Flower of the Holy Night. In Chile and Peru, the poinsettia is called the “Crown of the Andes.” In Spain, the poinsettia has a different holiday. It is known there as “Flor de Pascua,” meaning “Easter flower.”
  • They don’t like cold.
    Poinsettia are not frost tolerant. They do best in temperate, coastal climates.

Entrance to Temple of San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende

Care of Poinsettias

The length of time a poinsettia will stay healthy and vibrant, in your home, is dependent upon the plant maturity, when you buy the plant and how you treat it. If caring for a poinsettia properly, it should stay attractive for months. Here are a few tips to make sure this happens:

  • Make sure that your plant is properly insulated. Exposure to low temperatures even for a few minutes can damage the bracts and leaves.
  • Place your plant in indirect light for about 6 hours per day. Keep it from touching cold windows.
  • Keep poinsettias away from warm or cold draft areas in your home. These include radiators, air vents, doors and windows.
  • The ideal temperatures for poinsettias during the day are 60 to 70°F and around 55° at night. High and low temps outside this range will shorten the life of the plant. 
  • Check the soil daily. If the plant’s pot is wrapped in foil, make sure there are holes in it for drainage. Place a saucer under the plant and allow water to drain into the saucer and then discard the excess water. If your plant is wilted, it will drop the bracts sooner.
  • If you want to keep your plant healthy and pretty past the holiday season, use regular houseplant fertilizer once a month. Make sure you don’t fertilize when the plant is in bloom.

Nativity with poinsettias placed near the manger in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Mexican Legend of the Poinsettia

Since poinsettias are native to Mexico, there is a folktale legend surrounding the plant that goes something like this:

Nestled in a small village in Mexico there was a little girl known by all in her village for her hard work.  She always helped her parents with daily chores like feeding the donkey, cleaning the house, cooking meals and taking care of her younger brother and sister.

The family regularly attended Mass on Sundays, and one day, a few weeks before Christmas, a priest from the church came to the girl’s mother to ask her to make a new blanket for Baby Jesus in the nativity scene that was constructed each year. The current blanket was worn and needed repair and the girl’s mother was known in the village as an expert weaver of fine cloth. The girl’s mother happily agreed to take on the project.

The next day, the girl and her mother went to the market and bought the best threads available and took them home to dye with many colors. The girl was very proud to be able to help her mother with the blanket and told all her friends, “I’m helping my mama to weave a blanket for Baby Jesus.”

As Christmas Day neared, everyone in the village was busy preparing for the holiday. The mothers were cooking and cleaning their houses and the fathers were decorating the church.

A few days before Christmas the girl’s mother got sick. She was so sick she had to stay in bed and couldn’t finish the blanket. Not wanting to disappoint the villagers, the girl decided that she would finish the blanket. She tried to weave as she had seen her mother do, but the threads got tangled. The harder she tried the more tangled the it became.

In tears, the girl went to her Aunt and asked for help. After examining the assignment, the girl’s Aunt exclaimed, “Oh honey, there is not enough time to fix it. We’ll just have to do another blanket for next year.”

This upset the girl even further and when the Christmas festivities began, she hid behind the walls of a building next to the church crying. An elderly lady appeared and asked her why she was hiding. The girl explained the situation amidst sobs. The old lady exclaimed, “Don’t worry, my child. Your mother will be fine. And don’t you know that any gift you give will be cherished by the Baby Jesus?”

So the girl looked around for a gift and spied a bunch of weeds next to the building.  She picked a handful of them and proceeded into the church.

There were whispers and giggles, among the villagers, as the girl walked down the church aisle and put the bunch of weeds in front of Baby Jesus’ manger. She then started to pray. When she opened her eyes and raised her head she saw that a beautiful red flower in the shape of a star was blooming from each weed. The congregation was astonished.

After the Mass, as people left the church they had an even bigger surprise. All of the tall weeds around the village were abloom with red stars, as if to say every gift is beautiful. And, till today, every Christmas, the red stars called poinsettias decorate villages through the entire country of Mexico.  

Cool, huh?

My sweet Mama is no longer with us. But, despite her brown thumbs, she taught us that we too could be master gardeners, at least throughout the holiday season. And more importantly, she taught us that all gifts, no matter how trivial or insignificant, when given with a pure heart, are beautiful.

Felix Navidad from Barefoot Diary!
John and Anel Ryan

Story Categories:


Written by:

One Response

  1. Poinsettias are no longer the ubiquitous Christmas plant for me. Your fascinating account of them has made me appreciate them more than I ever have. Your poignant poinsettia recollections from past Christmas warmed my heart. The bonus was the story of the little village girl. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up!

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every time we post a new story!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.


Want to listen to this story as you read?


Check out our eye candy!

Recent Stories

But there’s more…check out our newest adventures!

Share this: