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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- mountain.

"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 Christmas Day."


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