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Native Poinsettias Bring Beauty to the Holiday Season in Mexico

Poinsettias in Ajijic, Mexico
Credit: Judy King

I love this time of year along Lake Chapala because just outside my door our native poinsettias bring beauty to the holiday season in Mexico.

Indigenous to Mexico, the poinsettia, or cuetlaxóchitl, was cultivated by the Aztecs who offered it to the god of the sun during winter solstice celebrations. The Aztecs believed all flowers were divine gifts of the gods. They saw the red stars of these plants as symbols of the new lives earned by warriors who died in battle.

Franciscan missionaries in 16th century Mexico used the plants in nativity processions. Their winter blooms added color and cheer to the posadas (processions searching for an inn) and pastorelas (morality plays with the shepherds). The Franciscans scrambled to combine the Aztec traditions with those of Christian holidays.

In Mexico, the plants are called the “flowers of Christmas eve” (las flores de la noche buena). In Chile and Peru, they are the “crown of the Andes,” in France they are known as the “Christmas star.”

Skilled botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. Astonished by the towering wild plants, he shipped some to his South Carolina greenhouses. Back home, he cultivated the plants and shared them with botanical gardens and fellow horticulturists. He introduced them to Europe and by 1850 there were enough plants to decorate the Vatican.

Poinsettias represent 85 percent of holiday potted plant sales. The California Paul Ecke Nurseries began growing poinsettias commercially in the early 1900s. Today, they produce 80 percent of all U.S. wholesale plants.

For comparison, here is a taste of the price of poinsettias purchased this month at Lake Chapala. A place-setting-size pot with a double ruffled plant cost $15 pesos or about 75 cents each. Hanging baskets with three plants – each with two-to-three flowers – were priced at $60 pesos, or about US$3. Plants with from three-to-six red “flowers” were three plants for 100 pesos or about US$5.

A healthy plant has tightly clustered yellow centers — the real flowers of the plant. The colored “petals” are actually bracts, a type of leaf.

Here in the land of their origin, with little more than a bit of water, poinsettias are still bright and perky for Valentine’s Day and sometimes last until Mother’s Day. When they finally fade, they’re planted in the garden where they bloom from six-to-eight-foot-tall stems in ensuing years.