The poinsettia by any other name? Try ‘cuetlaxochitl’ or ‘Nochebuena’
Dec 20, 2023, 7:04 AM
(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Like Christmas trees, Santa and reindeer, the poinsettia has long been a ubiquitous symbol of the holiday season in the U.S. and Europe.
But now, nearly 200 years after the plant with the bright crimson leaves was introduced north of the Rio Grande, attention is once again turning to the poinsettia’s origins and the checkered history of its namesake.
Some things to know:
The name “poinsettia” comes from the amateur botanist and statesman Joel Roberts Poinsett, who happened upon the plant in 1828 on a side trip during his tenure as the first U.S. minister to a newly independent Mexico.
Poinsett, who was interested in science as well as potential cash crops, sent clippings of the plant to his home in South Carolina, and to a botanist in Philadelphia, who affixed the eponymous name to the plant in gratitude.
A life-size bronze statue of Poinsett still stands in his honor today in downtown Greenville.
While Poinsett is known for introducing the plant to the United States and Europe, its cultivation — under different Indigenous and Spanish language names — dates back to the Aztec empire in Mexico 500 years ago.
Among Nahuatl-speaking communities of Mexico, the plant is known as the cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-SHO-sheet), meaning “flower that withers.” It’s an apt description of the thin red leaves on wild varieties of the plant that grow to heights above 10 feet (3 meters).
Year-end holiday markets in Latin America brim with the potted plant known in Spanish as the “flor de Nochebuena,” or “flower of Christmas Eve,” which is entwined with celebrations of the night before Christmas. The “Nochebuena” name is traced to early Franciscan friars who arrived from Spain in the 16th century. Spaniards once called it “scarlet cloth.”
Additional nicknames abound: “Santa Catarina” in Mexico, “estrella federal,” or “federal star” in Argentina and “penacho de Incan,” or “headdress” in Peru.
Ascribed in the 19th century, the Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “the most beautiful” of a diverse genus with a milky sap of latex.
Most ordinary people in Mexico never say “poinsettia” and don’t talk about Poinsett, according to Laura Trejo, a Mexican biologist who is leading studies on the genetic history of the U.S. poinsettia.
“I feel like it’s only the historians, the diplomats and, well, the politicians who know the history of Poinsett,” Trejo said.
Not long after Poinsett brought the flower to the U.S., interest spread quickly in the vibrant, star-shaped bloom that — in a dose of Christmas cheer — flourished with the approach of winter as daylight waned.
Demand spread to Europe. The 20th century brought with it industrial production of poinsettias amid crafty horticulture and Hollywood marketing by father-son nurserymen at the Ecke Ranch in Southern California.
For his part, Poinsett was cast out of Mexico within a year of his discovery, having earned a local reputation for intrusive political maneuvering that extended to a network of secretive masonic lodges and schemes to contain British influence.
Mexican biologists in recent years have traced the genetic stock of U.S. poinsettia plants to a wild variant in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, verifying lore about Poinsett’s pivotal encounter there. The scientists also are researching a rich, untapped diversity of other wild variants, in efforts that may help guard against poaching of plants and theft of genetic information.
The flower still grows in the wild along Mexico’s Pacific Coast and into parts of Central America as far as Costa Rica.
Trejo, of the National Council of Science and Technology in the central state of Tlaxcala, said some informal outdoor markets still sell the “sun cuetlaxochitl” that resemble wild varieties, alongside modern patented varieties.
In her field research travels, Trejo regularly runs across households that conserve ancient traditions associated with the flower.
“It’s clear to us that this plant, since the pre-Hispanic era, is a ceremonial plant, an offering, because it’s still in our culture, in the interior of the county, to cut the flowers and take them to the altars,” she said in Spanish. “And this is primarily associated with the maternal goddesses: with Coatlicue, Tonantzin and now with the Virgin Mary.”
The “poinsettia” name may be losing some of its luster in the United States as more people learn of its namesake’s complicated history. Unvarnished published accounts reveal Poinsett as a disruptive advocate for business interests abroad, a slaveholder on a rice plantation in the U.S., and a secretary of war who helped oversee the forced removal of Native Americans, including the westward relocation of Cherokee populations to Oklahoma known as the “Trail of Tears.”
In a new biography titled “Flowers, Guns and Money,” historian Lindsay Schakenbach Regele describes the cosmopolitan Poinsett as a political and economic pragmatist who conspired with a Chilean independence leader and colluded with British bankers in Mexico. Though he was a slaveowner, he opposed secession, and he didn’t live to see the Civil War.
Schakenbach Regele renders tough judgment on Poinsett’s treatment of and regard for Indigenous peoples.
“Because Poinsett belonged to learned societies, contributed to botanists’ collections, and purchased art from Europe, he could more readily justify the expulsion of Natives from their homes,” she writes.
The cuetaxochitl name for the flower is winning over some new enthusiasts among Mexican youths, including the diaspora in the U.S., according to Elena Jackson Albarrán, a professor of Mexican history and global and intercultural studies, also at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
“I’ve seen a trend towards people openly saying, ‘Don’t call this flower either poinsettia or Nochebuena. It’s cuetlaxochitl,’” said Jackson Albarrán. “There’s going to be a big cohort of people who are like, ‘Who cares?’”
Amid disputes over what to call the plant, Poinsett’s legacy as an explorer and collector still looms large, as 1,800 meticulously tended poinsettias are delivered in November and December from greenhouses in Maryland to a long list of museums in Washington, D.C., affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.
A “pink-champagne” cultivar adorns the National Portrait Gallery this year.
Poinsett’s name may also live on for his connection to other areas of U.S. culture. He advocated for the establishment of a national science museum, and in part due to his efforts, a fortune bequeathed by British scientist James Smithson was used to underwrite the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.