December 14, 2019

“Huh?” I hear most of you mutter at my headline. Which only goes to prove my hearing is still pretty good.

The cuetlaxochitl is sometimes known by its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (which none of the online translation sites will translate for me today), but more often it’s called by the one derived from the surname of the man who introduced it to the United States in 1822: Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was the US’ first Minister (i.e., ambassador) to Mexico. Odds are, half of you have one in your houses right now.

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A fine plant in front of a village house.

Poinsettias mostly grew till then on the Pacific coast of Mexico and one or two Central American countries. Since then, they’ve spread across central Mexico.

In other parts of the world, they’re deliberately grown infected by poinsettia branch-inducing phytoplasma, a bacterium that makes them more squat and produce more flowers. Around here, they’re in people’s back yards, a dozen feet high or more, and in late November, as the days shorten, they quite suddenly turn scarlet. They need just five consecutive nights of more than twelve hours of darkness, then voila. Already in the village, flowers (actually red leaves, or bracts) on some of the shrubs that no-one waters are beginning to wilt.


An almost-tree Poinsettia in a front yard.

Today, the usual name here for the plants is flor de NocheBuena, Noche Buena being the Mexican Spanish term for Christmas Eve. I read that in Spain they’re used to mark Easter, though since the redness has ebbed by then, I’m not sure what that’s all about. But there’s a big trade around this town in smaller potted NocheBuenas for houses that don’t have shrubs (trees, almost) in their gardens. The plant is inescapable right now.

In preColumbian times, the plant was used medicinally for fever reduction. You’ll still find the leaves described as toxic, but this is inaccurate, and you’d have to eat a whole plant, or more than one, to make yourself ill. If you try this, which would be stupid as well as unappetizing, it’s not my fault.

Oddly, Mr. Poinsett died on December 12, the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national religious icon. In the US, this has become National Poinsettia Day. His other interests included promoting Freemasonry in Mexico, so his involvement with the country was long-term.

His social and political work is now, of course, only known to specialist historians. However, the plant he favoured has perpetuated his name through most of two centuries. After its brief spurt of glory at the end of year, it’s an unsightly weed, and a spindly shrub. Unlike bugambilia (called bougainvillea in some places), which produces coloured bracts all year long, it has to wait for its seasonal moment of glory. But since US trade in the things alone runs to $250-million, it’s in no danger of disappearing any time soon.

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