One flower takes center stage at this time of the year – the poinsettia. Ever wonder why?
The poinsettia has also been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s. It was brought from Mexico during the Egyptian campaign. It is called "Bent El Consul", "the consul's daughter", referring to the U.S. ambassador Joel Poinsett. Poinsettias received their name in the United States in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the country in 1828. Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. . In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He sent cuttings of the plant he had discovered in Southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. December 12th is Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851.
The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’s' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.
From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Spain it is known as "Flor de Pascua", meaning "Easterflower". In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as "Crown of the Andes". It is native to the area around Taxco, Mexico and widely grown and very popular in subtropical climates such as Australia.
While most people are not sensitive to the sap, it can cause a mild skin irritation. During the 14th - 16th century the sap was used to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. Eating any part of the plant could cause diarrhea and vomiting.
In nature, Poinsettias are perennial flowering shrubs that were once considered weeds. The showy colored parts of Poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts (modified leaves). The yellow flowers, or cyathia, are in the center of the colorful bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting Poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
There’s even a Poinsettia Bowl. (of course!) An NCAA college football bowl game in San Diego is named the Poinsettia Bowl. The first bowl was played in December of 1952 and was created as a military services championship game, with the Western and Eastern military services champions competing against each other. This year it’s BYU vs. San Diego State on Thurs., Dec. 20.
There are over 100 varieties of Poinsettias available. Though once only available in red, there are now Poinsettias in pink, white, yellow, purple, salmon, and multi-colors. The red Poinsettia still dominates over other color options.