December 12 is National Poinsettia Day, which marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who discovered the plant, botanically known as Euphorbia Pulcherrima, in Southern Mexico in 1928. Poinsett was the first U.S. Minister to Mexico as well as a soldier, physician and amateur botanist.
The plant has a long history in Mexico. Aztecs called it Cuitlaxochitl (star flower) and used it as a red dye. The sap was used in medicine to control fevers. It's believed that Montezuma had the flower delivered to him, via caravan, in what is today Mexico City. Franciscan missionaries first used it in Christian ceremonies in the 17th century as part of the Fiesta de Pesebre. Legend has it that a poor young girl, too poor to buy anything to honor baby Jesus with in the Christmas Procession was told by an angel that any gift given with love would be enough. The girl gathered weeds to place in the manger and when her tears fell on the weeds they miraculously transformed into a beautiful red star flower.
Today in Mexico the poinsettia is known as La Flor de le Nochebuena (Flower of the Holy Night) and is used to celebrate Dia de la Virgen, December 12 (coincidentally the same day that Joel Poinsett died.)
The plant, known botanically as Euphorbia Pulcherrima became associated with Christmas in the U.S. through the marketing efforts of Paul Ecke Jr. who discovered a technique that forced seedlings to branch on his family flower ranch in Encinitas, CA. He placed the flowers on popular television shows including Johnny Carson and Dinah Shore and on Bob Hope's Christmas specials and in popular ladie's magazines.
As a girl when driving to San Diego to visit my grandparents at Christmas time I remember seeing the huge fields of color as we drove past the flower ranch. I remember knowing that when I saw those fields we were getting close to the end of our trip. At dinner with friends recently we wondered why Poinsettias were associated with Christmas, which led me to this research.