As we’re preparing for the holiday season, hanging wreaths and other Christmas decorations, and gift shopping for our loved ones, you may also be displaying poinsettias, as they’re called in the U.S. Because of its red and green leaves, it’s become the most popular Christmas flower. Today, they’re used in floral displays, churches, homes, and even nativity scenes to symbolize the holiday season.
But you may not know that this special plant has been called many names throughout the centuries, including its Nahuatl name “cuetlaxochitl.” Or that it was first cultivated by the Mexican Indigenous people known as the Aztecs, or Mexicas, before colonization. Read on to learn more about the significance, history, and legends behind this traditional plant as we (safely!) celebrate the holidays with loved ones this month.
The Mexicas called the plant by its Nahuatl name cuetlaxochitl.
In English, cuetlaxochitl means “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.” Because it only blooms during the winter solstice, it is a rare and beautiful sign of the approaching spring, a new year, and a new cycle of life.
The Mexicas revered the cuetlaxochitl for its spiritual properties.
While the cuetlaxochitl is indigenous to Mexico and select parts of Central America, it had special significance in Mexica culture during pre-colonization times. Community members decorated their temples with the cuetlaxochitl as an offering to help reignite the light of Mother Earth. This was done during winter solstice on the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war, who often takes the form of a hummingbird.
For the Mexicas, the plant’s red leaves symbolized blood, both for its sacred energy and for the blood lost by dead warriors in battle. Once buried, these warriors would then return to the living world in Huitzilopochtli’s hummingbird form to free the nectar from the cuetlaxochitl.
The cuetlaxochitl was also used in the Mexicas’ medicinal practices.
Just from the leaves, the Mexicas could boil a tea to help the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers and use it as a red-purple dye for fabric and crafts. The sap was also used to soothe fevers and skin diseases.
In Mexico, the cuetlaxochitl is now known as nochebuena.
There are two stories about how the cuetlaxochitl got its Spanish name Flores de Noche Buena or simply nochebuena. According to a 16th-century legend, Franciscan friars in Taxco, a town in the state of Guerrero just southwest of Mexico City, were hosting their annual Christmas celebration, complete with prayers, piñatas, gift exchanges, and cuetlaxochitl decorations on their nativity scene. But during mass, that’s when the night really got exciting, and the friars witnessed the cuetlaxochitl turning red right before their eyes! Hailed a miracle plant, the cuetlaxochitl was named nochebuena or “Flower of the Blessed Night.”
An even earlier legend tells the story of Pepita, a peasant girl on her way to Christmas mass who wanted to present the baby Jesus at her church’s nativity scene with a gift. Having no money, she decided to uproot weeds at the side of the road she was walking down. When she presented the gift to the baby Jesus that night, all her flowers bloomed into the familiar beautiful red color and shape of the cuetlaxochitl, thus becoming known as nochebuena. The plant has since become a symbol of Mexico’s conversion to the Spaniards’ Catholic religion and, when it first blooms in October, a sign of the approaching Christmas season.
In English, the cuetlaxochitl is named “poinsettia” after Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett.
“Poinsettia” didn’t appear in the English language until 1825 when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, visited the same Catholic church where the plant received its Spanish name from the Franciscan friars some two hundred years earlier. Because he arrived on Christmas Day, the church’s nativity scene was still decorated with the cuetlaxochitl. As an amateur botanist, he had a natural interest in plants and seeds, so he took samples and sent them to his friends in his home state South Carolina, beginning the cuetlaxochitl craze in the United States that is still a profitable industry today. For Poinsett’s “discovery”, the plants were named “poinsettia” in his honor. Later in 2002, December 12th was declared “Poinsettia Day” by the U.S. government.
Dr. Poinsett was a slave owner and racist nationalist.
Poinsett was a doctor and slave owner who first became notable for his contributions to other fields, including architecture, botany, and politics. Before being appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he served as a congressman, Secretary of War, and ambassador to South America and Europe. As Secretary of War, he horribly treated Indigenous communities in the South, suppressing their uprisings and forcibly removing them from their lands.
He didn’t do much better in his role as American diplomat to Mexico. He frequently shared his white supremacist, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Black views, like the idea that Mexicans could only be self-sufficient in their government if the top officials were white.
In modern Christianity, the cuetlaxochitl remains a popular nativity decoration.
Following the tradition of Franciscan friars, Christians continue to display the cuetlaxochitl in their churches and nativity scenes. The star-like blooms represent the Christmas star, or Star of Bethlehem, that led the three Wise Men to the manger with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Their red color also represents the blood of Christ that was lost during his crucifixion and is believed to wash away the sins of believers.
In the U.S. and across the world, the cuetlaxochitl represents a huge profitable industry.
Because of their significance to the Christmas holiday, the cuetlaxochitl are grown almost as much as Christmas trees, especially in Latin American countries where labor is cheaper. Just in the U.S., the industry sells more than 70 million cuetlaxochitl plants to consumers and makes about $250 million every year.