Poinsettia – the Christmas Eve Flower

As a native of south Florida, I grew up surrounded by poinsettias that GREW IN THE GROUND!! Amazing!!! I never really appreciated that until I moved farther north where poinsettias were bought in pots during the Christmas season and carefully nurtured indoors.

I have two very distinct memories of poinsettias from my childhood, other than just taking them for granted. While we were living in West Palm Beach, Florida, we had a hedge, separating our house from the one next door, of tall white hibiscus with a thick row of what we called “fireball” poinsettias in front. It was evidently breathtaking. Strangers, probably tourists, would stop in front of the house and question us about the poinsettias. They had never seen anything like it!

My second memory of poinsettias was helping my mother make fresh-cut poinsettia arrangements for our home, church and friends. She would send me out early in the morning to cut the poinsettias (from the hedge), burn the cut stems with a match to seal them off and stop the flow of the “milk”, then submerge them in water for several hours. We had a large wash tub that we would fill with water and then weight the poinsettias down in the water with a brick or rock. The poinsettias supposedly soaked up the water through their leaves which kept them fresh indefinitely.

As an adult, I had the privilege of studying Spanish in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I learned there that the “poinsettia” was not a “poinsettia” at all but a Nochebuena-or Christmas Eve flower. That name seems so much more appropriate to me since the flower blooms during the Christmas season and after. After inquiring, it seems that the Nochebuena is native to Cuernavaca and was cultivated by the Aztecs. Since the Aztecs preceded the Spanish in Mexico, their name for the flower-cuetlaxochitl-should probably be considered to be its “official” name. But the conquering Spanish immediately renamed everything in Spanish, including the “poinsettia”. I must admit that for me, at least, it is much easier to say Nochebuena than Cuetlaxochitl.

Then, in the 1820’s, along came the first United States Ambassador to Mexico-a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was enchanted by the beautiful shrub with large red flowers. He decided to introduce the flower to the United States by bringing cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Rather than bringing the Spanish name of Nochebuena back with him, he allowed his “discovery” of the plant to be the basis for William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, to name the plant Poinsettia in his honor.

So, as you and your family enjoy the presence of poinsettias in your Christmas d├ęcor, just remember that the plant is actually the Nochebuena-the Christmas Eve flower. Perhaps the Nochebuena will help all of us remember the true focus of Christmas-the birth of the Christ child on Christmas Eve.