Poinsettia -- The Christmas Plant
Nature Bulletin No. 699 December 22, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
POINSETTIA -- THE CHRISTMAS PLANT
Christmas is a day of family gatherings. In each home they have their
own traditional customs. Some of us cherish those that are peculiar to
the region where we were children, or the land from whence our
forefathers came. Most of us have also adopted customs -- such as
decorating with holly and mistletoe -- that stem from ancient pagan
ceremonies or festivals but have lost their original significance. There
are many myths and legends about the origin of our Yuletide customs.
(See Bulletins No. 135, 173, 211, 326 and 475).
In this country most families have a Christmas tree, a custom that was
introduced from Germany by Hessian troops in the British army during
the Revolutionary War. It prevails in Britain and most of northern
Europe but is unusual in Italy, Spain and Latin America. There, the
symbol of Christmas and heart of the celebration in a home is not an
Evergreen tree but a miniature reproduction of the stable and manger
where Christ was born.
In France that is the crèche, in Italy it is the presepio, and in Spain and
Latin America the nacimiento. This beautiful custom is said to have
been originated, using real people and animals, by Saint Francis at
Assisi on Christmas Eve in AD 1224. In Mexico, at every church and
chapel on Christmas Eve, the people come to decorate the nacimiento
with flowers -- especially poinsettia -- and they have a charming legend
about that plant.
Cuernavaco is an ancient town about 47 miles south of Mexico City.
There they say that once upon a time a child grieved because she had no
flowers to take to the manger of the Nativity. As she cried, an angel
appeared and said: "Lovely child, weep no more. Go pluck a weed from
the roadside, bring it to the altar, and wait. " The little girl arose, did as
the angel had commanded, and when she had placed her weed before
the altar it was transformed into a tall beautiful plant bearing a whorl of
brilliant scarlet flowers at the top. That is why the poinsettia is prized
above all Mexican flowers at Christmas.
The poinsettia has become our favorite Christmas flower, too. At this
time of year, conservatories exhibit thousands of the scarlet, pink, white
and perhaps yellow varieties of this unique plant and people display
them in their homes. They enjoy the vivid colors and regard the
poinsettia almost as much a symbol of Christmas as the Christmas tree.
It is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina who, after being
appointed the first U.S. minister to Mexico in 1825, saw it growing
there as a roadside weed and brought the first plant to our country.
Actually, what you admire is not a flower but a colorful whorl of
modified leaves surrounding a cluster of greenish flowers too small to
be noticeable. The true flowers are like little vases no larger than a pea,
and on its side each has a yellow cup, a gland, brimming with glistening
sticky nectar that, if you taste it, is as sweet as honey. Each vase is filled
with a bunch of stamens from which projects a typical pistil that bears a
tiny seed pod on its tip.
Those peculiar flowers have no petals nor sepals and are typical of one
of the most important families, commercially, in the plant kingdom: the
Spurges -- about 4000 species of herbs, shrubs and trees. Most of them
have milky juice and in many it is acrid and poisonous. It includes the
rubber trees, the manioc or cassava from which tapioca is made, the
castor bean and croton plants producing oils that are powerful purges,
and 22 species growing in Cook county, including Snow-on-the-
"And so it was, that in the fourth century of our time, Pope Julius I
established the Festival at Rome on December 25 which is our
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Update: June 2012