by Paul McGehee. The beautiful tropical plant now associated with the
Christmas holiday is originally from Mexico and Central America. The
bright red and green plant was first called "cuetlaxochitl" by the
Aztecs. To those early inhabitants of Mexico it represented
purity...its name meant "flower that withers, mortal flower that
perishes like all that is pure." They
grow wild not only in Mexico but in the jungles of Nicaragua and Costa
Rica, and have spread to South America and the Caribbean region as
well. Thriving in the tropic heat, these plants
can grow to enormous proportions...some being 15' in height.
A legend dating back to the 1500s explains the possible origin of the
flower's association with Christmas. Franciscan friars in the area of
Taxco, Mexico celebrated one Christmas with a lavishly decorated
nativity scene. As the townspeople gathered, gifts were exchanged and a
mass was held during which something amazing happened: the
whitish-green flowers decorating the nativity scene turned bright red!
After that the flower was named "Flor de Nochebuena," or "Flower of the
Blessed Night." The
plant was initially introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts
Poinsett, Congressman from South Carolina, Secretary of War in the
1830s under President Martin Van Buren and the first U.S. Ambassador to
Mexico. Poinsett's background was in medicine, but he was also an
architect and botanist. Throughout his professional career, Poinsett
traded seeds with fellow hobbyists in exotic lands. One Christmas,
while passing through the Taxco region he saw the plants being used in
their religious displays. He was completely taken by their beauty.
Poinsett had some of the plants shipped back to his plantation in South
Carolina, where they thrived in his greenhouses. After his success at
raising the tropical flowers, he began to promote them and give them as
gifts to fellow botanists and scientific institutions. They were
as the "poinsettias," so named in his honor. After his years of public
service had ended, Poinsett made a fortune cultivating poinsettias for
Americans to use as holiday decorations, first becoming a popular
symbol of the holiday season in the south and then spreading northward.
After his death in 1851, the tradition had taken root...to this day,
poinsettias can be seen in every household, place of business and place
of worship during Christmastime. December 12th is now known as
Poinsettia Day, honoring the plant's namesake on the day that he died.
What of Poinsett's legacy? Poinsettias are still the number one most
popular potted plant sold in the United States, with over 70 million
being purchased each year nationwide. "Poinsettias" is faithfully
reproduced as an archival-quality print from McGehee's original color
pencil drawing issued in a limited edition of only 500
pieces, each hand-signed by the artist.