Poinsettias: the Christmas Flower from Mexico to the World
There is little doubt that poinsettias or flor de nochebuena have become one of the most popular symbols of Christmas the world over. And we Mexicans should feel proud that this plant is native to our country. Used in Mexico as early as the pre-Hispanic era, the plant we currently use to decorate our homes tends to be the true Mexican poinsettia.
The True Poinsettia
The “cuetlaxóchitl” [kweet la SO sheet uL] (the original name in náhuatl) was described and scientifically classified in 1834, at which time it was named Euphorbia pulcherrima (which means “the most beautiful”). It was greatly appreciated by the Aztecs, since its color symbolized the blood of sacrifice, which they offered the sun in order to regain its strength. They would extract the white milky juice to make medication for fever and used its scarlet red leaves to dye leather items, cloth and cosmetics.
Its native variety can currently be found growing wild in tropical and sub tropical forests in Mexico and Central America, mainly in ravines and shaded areas. In the Banderas Bay area, we can find them in mountainous regions to the north and south, on the edge of ravines, and along the road to Compostela.
Not Really a Flower
Its native species can grow to more than four meters high, and what are called its flowers are really modified leaves, which adorn miniscule flowers that are almost invisible. This plant is very sensitive to mold and direct sunlight.
Becoming a Christmas Decoration
Contrary to popular belief, pre-Hispanic traditions related this plant to war and blood shed. It started to be used as a Christmas decoration in Mexico during the 16th century, when the Franciscan priests began to use it to decorate Christmas altars, since tradition dictated the use of crimson colors.
Foreign Poinsettias Cultivated In Mexico
If you wonder why poinsettias are so expensive, here is the answer. This beautiful plant became famous during the 19th century, when the first United States ambassador to Mexico (J. R. Poinsett) introduced it to his country after being enchanted by its beauty; thereafter, he dedicated part of his life to cultivating and distributing it throughout the United States, and ultimately patented it. Since then, royalties are paid on poinsettias cultivated in Mexico to the current patent holders and others, depending on the variety.
As new technology developed, the United States and some European countries developed and patented new varieties of poinsettias through genetic cloning, producing a large variety of colors. But because of the climate conditions needed for their development, these plants are still cultivated in Mexico and then exported.
The Future of Poinsettias in Mexico
In Mexico, few people are familiar with the background of these plants, but two varieties have already been classified as native to Mexico, so they can be called a “truly Mexican” plant. Even though their roots are rightfully ours, this represents years of work by research institutions and authorities that seek to protect native Mexican plants.
It’s amazing how Mexicans sometimes feel “outraged” because other countries have profited from some type of product from our country but we fail to protect and benefit from our own surroundings. We are slowly losing our natural riches, (to our dismay) to foreigners who, all too often, value and care more for our natural resources. Mexicans would benefit greatly from taking a similar interest.