Millions of Mexican families are adorning their homes with the traditional Christmas Eve flower, known in the US as the poinsettia.
The red Euphorbia pulcherrima is a species of flower native to Mexico and is grown and sold here for decorative purposes and for its esthetic characteristics.
According to figures compiled by Mexico’s Culture Secretariat, the flower’s history goes back to the country’s original peoples and symbolizes purity and new life, attributes that were emphasized by the Spanish priests during the colonial period, who included it in the celebrations prior to Christmas itself.
“The love of our forebears for plants and flowers is demonstrated in the creation of botanical gardens that contain marvelous species,” wrote Sonia C. Iglesias y Cabrera in the book “Navidades mexicanas” (Mexican Christmas holidays), published by the secretariat’s popular, indigenous and urban culture division.
The authors of the work say that “Nezahualcoyotl founded the first (botanical garden) we know about, gathered a splendid collection and ordered that paintings of the plants and flowers he could not obtain be made so that there would be a record of them.”
The text says that the Mexican emperors loved botanical gardens and the Spanish conquistadors were impressed by them, noting that the indigenous people used them for ornamental, medicinal, nutritional and ritual ceremonial purposes.
The bright red Christmas Eve flower is used ritualistically in several celebrations, not only at Christmastime.
In addition to using it in rituals, the Aztecs cultivated it to extract from its petals a certain ink to color their textiles and leathers, according to Amparo Rincon, an expert with the secretariat.
Rincon also said that the plant was used medicinally to treat fevers and certain skin diseases, and 16th century Spanish physician and botanist Francisco Hernandez de Toledo said that it was also used to increase milk production in mothers of newborns.
Botanist and first US Ambassador to Mexico Joel Poinsett brought back the flower to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 19th century, where it became known as the poinsettia.
Currently, the plants are sold all over Mexico for between 30 and 300 pesos ($1.50 and $15), depending on their size.