Editor’s Note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He will share a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.
By Richard Leighton
There is more mystery surrounding the traditional red Christmas “flowers” shown here than there is relating to where Santa Claus gets his red flannel suits dry-cleaned.
Let’s begin with the fact that the big red clusters are not the plant’s flowers; they’re simply a form of the plant’s leaves known as “bracts.” They’ve turned red due to the darkness in which the plants are cultivated (a process called “photoperiodism”). You’ve probably never noticed the plant’s real flowers, which are partly hidden within the small structures in the center of the red leaf cluster.
Then, there is its name: Poinsettia. This is no derivation of an interesting Latin or Greek word. It’s just a derivation of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s last name. He was the first United States minister to Mexico who happened to be a botanist during his off hours. In the early 19th century, he found the plants in their native Mexico and begin shipping them to the United States, where nurseries eventually popularized them.
When the plants first came here, they were simply and descriptively called “Mexican flame flowers.” (Their natural, non-manipulated color is deep red.) After being popularized with Joel’s last name, however, there was confusion as to how to pronounce “poinsettia.” It’s “POYNE-seh-teeyah.” Don’t turn that two-syllable “teeyah” into a one-syllable “tah.”
Those of us who have trouble pronouncing strange names are lucky that the plant didn’t keep its original Aztec name: “cuetlaxochit.” The Aztecs used the plant’s leaves to make purple dye for cosmetics and clothes and its sap (which is what we call latex) for medicine.
Returning to the plant’s more modern mysteries, there is a persistent rumor that poinsettias are fatally poisonous to humans and their pets. Not so, according to the Society of American Florists, which had the plants tested for toxicity. However, eating the leaves can cause some discomfort in some people and animals and touching the sap can give people with a latex allergy a rash.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that poinsettias have become a popular Christmas decoration in Maine and throughout the nation. Why? There seem to be three leading theories mentioned in the literature, perhaps all originating from a common idea. First, in the 17th century, Franciscan priests in southern Mexico began creating extravagant nativity scenes decorated with the colorful local poinsettias. That practice became popular with ordinary people.
Second, the plant’s radiating leaves were said by some to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem that reportedly led the three wise men to the child Jesus in the original nativity stable. And, the red color of that star was thought to symbolize the blood that Jesus shed.
Finally, there is the much-cited legend of little Pepita, the poor Mexican girl who couldn’t afford a present to give to the baby Jesus during Christmas. She made a bouquet from some wild green plants that she found along the road and laid it in her church’s nativity creche before Christmas mass. During the ensuing services, the plants miraculously turned bright red and, ever since, have been known in Mexico as Flores de Noche Buena, “Flowers of the Holy Night.”