Holiday Plants: Part II

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poinsettias scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which literally means “the most beautiful euphorbia.” We commonly associate the poinsettia with Christmas, but this has not always been true. A native of Central America, the poinsettia grows wild in southern Mexico. It was unknown to Europeans until the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards in the 1500s. By the 17th century, Spanish clergy in Mexico were using the poinsettia in their Christmas holiday celebrations. The plant gained the name “Flor de la Noche Buena,” Or “Flower of the Holy Nights,” because they “bloomed” at the time of the holidays. However, the flowers of the plant are actually the small yellow buds, surrounded by colorful modified leaves called bracts (which are sometimes confused for flowers).

In 1825, the United States sent Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett to be our ambassador to the newly independent Republic of Mexico. Poinsett, a plant collector, explored Mexico’s countryside and noticed a dramatic shrub growing along the roadways and around churches. He sent it back to the United States. As the unusual plant gained popularity, one of the United States’ great historians, William H. Prescott, was asked to give this plant a name. In 1836, with admiration for its collector, he suggested “poinsettia.”

The U.S. Botanic Garden is bursting with this festive holiday plant and the Smithsonian even put together a video celebrating this seasonal beauty.

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