Last updateFri, 11 Mar 2016 6pm

Mexico’s Christmas gift to the world

When the Spanish arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they recorded that the Aztecs viewed all flowers as gifts of the gods. The ancients in this area cultivated the red star-shaped cuetlaxóchitl (flower with leather petals) as an offering to their supreme diety – the god of the sun – during winter solstice celebrations. As they explored other areas of the continents, they encountered the same beautiful winter plant, but known by other names

Franciscan missionaries in 16th-century Mexico used the plants and red star-shaped blooms in nativity processions. The plants bloomed at just the right time of year to be a perfect accent in the first posadas, pastorelas and other early Christmas events. This gave the plant its Spanish name, la flor de la noche buena (the flower of Christmas Eve).

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was so enchanted with the noche buenas that in 1829 he shipped young plants to his own greenhouses in the U.S. south. Back in Charlestown, the botanist propagated the plant to share his stock with friends and other plant enthusiasts. 

By the middle of the 19th century, the common name adopted for the plant honored the physician, scientist and diplomat who introduced it to the world and who popularized it. Nonetheless, discussion still rages – is it a poinsettia or a poinsetta? While the devotees of both names are passionate about their choice, both are correct, and both equally honor Poinsett. 

Thanks to Poinsett’s original exportation of the Mexican plant to South Carolina, U.S. nurseries had an early start at raising the Christmas plants. Leading the export war and the development of new strains, colors, sizes and designs of poinsettias is a California grower. The Paul Ecke family near San Diego was the first commercial grower of poinsettias beginning in the early 1900s. The Eckes produce 80 percent of all wholesale plants in the United States and lead the industry in hybridizing specialty colors and sizes of the popular plants.

And when others talk about the beautiful bright red “flowers” of the poinsettia plant … you’ll know that those colored portions are actually modified leaves or bracts that change from green to red. The actual flower is the small yellow sections in the center of the red poinsettia bracts. The plant doesn’t lend itself to cutting for arrangements even here at lakeside where plants can be three to four meters tall and topped with dozens of single, double or even triple blooms.

The “flowers” will wilt before the guests arrive. Cut poinsettias can be held for a few hours if the stem is sealed with a flame with immediately after cutting. For best results take a lighter to the garden and seal each stem as it is cut.  

Seasonal articles up north offer tips for prolonging the blooms on potted poinsettias. Here at Lake Chapala, expats find they have the opposite problem and realize they are still waiting for the poinsettia to droop and die at Valentine’s Day … at Easter … even in mid-May. 

The best solution is to find a corner near the wall and transplant the poinsettia into the garden. Because poinsettias blossoms form only on new grown, cutting the plant back in April and September will help to keep the quick growing plant under control and blooming about ten feet above the ground. 

What a country. When I think of how I had to scurry from the store to the warmed-up car and from the car to the housed to keep the fragile poinsettia from being burned by the cold air. And here, the same plant grows to great heights, practically wild.