Popular poinsettia: Iconic Christmas decoration has a colorful history

Mirror photo by Cherie Hicks Andrea Hammel, owner of Peterman’s Florists in Altoona’s Juniata neighborhood, displays poinsettias in her store.

Called “cuetlaxochitl” by the Aztecs who discovered it in the wild, the bright red plant that we call poinsettia today took hold in American society after it debuted at the inaugural Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829.

Today, not only is it an iconic Christmas decoration, it’s the most popular potted plant in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA says that nearly 80 million are sold for more than $250 million annually, even though the market is only about six weeks long.

“We sell hundreds of poinsettias,” said Andrea Hammel, owner of Peterman’s Florists in the Juniata neighborhood of Altoona. “But they’re definitely a novelty. They won’t make it through our harsh winters.”

Hammel said her staff even has to call ahead when delivering to avoid standing too long on a porch in the cold. Once inside, the poinsettia can last months, “if you tend to it properly,” she said. Keep it away from direct heat sources and don’t over-water it, which can lead to root rot and the biggest cause of the poinsettia’s premature demise, Hammel said. It’s better to under-water it.

“I’ve known people to keep poinsettias until Easter,” she added.

Hammel noted that the plant comes in a number of colors, from salmon to variegated. (Those actually are the leaves, or bracts; the flower of the poinsettia is the little cluster in the center that typically is yellow). They include Jingle Bell, which is red and white specked; the Tri-Color in red, white and pink; a purple shade called Plum Pudding; Prestige Maroon, as its name suggests; Lemon Drop, as its name suggests; and, Vision of Grandeur with soft pink and white leaves.

Hammel said she has seen some poinsettias “doused in glitter” at grocery stores, and “that will definitely decrease the shelf life.”

It is ironic that a tropical plant native to Mexico and Central America has become the symbol of the coldest season in North America. And, like many Christmas traditions, it has roots in pagan lore.

Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, cultivated the cuetlaxochitl and considered it a gift from the gods, according to www.PoinsettiaDay.com.

“With its blood red color, (the plant) served as a reminder of the sacrifice the gods had made to create the universe and the debt which would be repaid with human sacrifice,” according to the website.

But the Aztecs also put the plant to practical use, with the sap employed to cure fever and the leaves to make a dye.

As missionaries moved in to the region, the legend of the plant evolved to one of a Christian theme: During a Mass celebrated by Franciscan friars, the Star of Bethlehem passed overhead and the poinsettia leaves turned from green to red, making it a symbol of the blood of Christ.

But it was actually the first U.S. ambassador to the new Republic of Mexico in 1828 that led to the plant’s popularity and its current name. After his visit to Mexico, Joel Poinsett became so fascinated with the plant that he collected clippings and shared them with friends, including those at the renowned Bartram Garden collection, which began a propagation program in Philadelphia.

By the following year, the flower was introduced to the American public at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Poinsett died on Dec. 12,1851, and a century and a half later, the U.S. Congress chose to honor him with his own day.

On Monday, may you have a happy Poinsettia Day.

Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.