Why Poinsettias, Anyway?

Easter has lilies and Valentine’s Day without a rose would never smell as sweet.  In similar fashion, poinsettias are the flower (well, plant) of Christmas.

But why?

Aside from needing some brilliant vegetation for the cats to eat and throw up on the carpet (because it’s not really a holiday ’til somebody pukes on the rug) I never saw the connection between poinsettias and Christmas.  That said, the bright red-and-green leafed plants have appeared in florists and grocery stores every November that I can remember, in numbers that suggest either a solidly-planted tradition or an imminent vegetative takeover of the continental United States (Welcome, floral overlords!) so clearly someone knew something that I didn’t know.

Until now.  And since it’s the season for giving, I’m sharing the knowledge with you.

Poinsettias are indigenous to Mexico and Central America, where they flourish in the warm, humid climate.  The bright red (white, pink, yellow or marbled) “flowers” are actually colored leaves, called “bracts,” which take on their unique colors in winter when longer nights mean the plant receives at least twelve hours of darkness in each 24-hour cycle.  (Word Geek Note: the technical term is “photoperiodism” – meaning a plant’s ability  to flower or change in response to the relative lengths of days and nights.) This resolves the “why Christmas?” question.  Poinsettias take on their colors at Christmastime.

Poinsettias became part of Christmas celebrations in the United States in 1828 when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought some back as gifts.  Since then, the plants’ popularity has continued to increase (probably more so in homes without animals that regurgitate under the Christmas tree).

For the record, the plants are not called “poinsettias” in Mexico.  Their original Nahuatl name is “Cuitlaxochitl,” meaning “the plant that grows in residue.”  (Very original, those Aztecs.) I’m still not sure when people started calling them after Poinsett, but I have a pretty good idea why.

“Poop-growing flower” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Do you have poinsettias at Christmas?  Hop into the comments and let me know.

5 thoughts on “Why Poinsettias, Anyway?

  • December 16, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I can safely say we are poinsettia free this Christmas :). We had an poinsettia arrangement last year for some odd reason. We hope to stay flowery poop plant free for some time to come.

    • December 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

      Good for you. We’re avoiding them too, but mostly because the cats consider them a snack food.

  • December 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Lol. How funny. No wonder they’re so hard to kill, even for a plant-killing pro like me. Thanks for your post.

    • December 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks Piper! They are definitely hard to kill, though my cats seem to take a “devour and conquer” approach that has above-average results for plant killing and rug staining alike.

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