Flower of the Holy Night
Photo credit: Stars for Europe
How an ancient Aztec bloom became the most popular plant on Earth
Poinsettias have become the festive flowers of choice throughout Europe, but their roots are on the other side of the ocean, in the Aztec Kingdom of North and Central America, where it was highly prized by Kings Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma.
Known in Chile and Peru as The Crown of the Andes, the poinsettia is actually a small tropical tree which can reach heights of up to 12 feet in the wild, with leaves measuring six to eight inches across. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries poinsettia bracts were used by the Aztecs to create a purpleish dye, whilst the sap was utilised as a medicine which helped control fevers. Red was thought to signify purity and so this became the colour of choice.
Whilst many of the natural medicinal secrets and plant spirit shamanism of this ancient civilisation are sadly lost – are at least under-utilised – other benefits to plant keeping are well-known to modern society. Not only do houseplants help boost oxygen levels whilst soaking up nasties like free radicals from the air, but they also bring a welcome boost to mental health with their lush green foliage and – in the case of flowering plants - mood-enhancing colours.
This is all well and good in spring and summer when the choice of flowering plants in the UK and rest of Europe is at its peak but come wintertime the choices are far more limited. This is where poinsettias come into their own, as the reduced light conditions of the winter months are exactly what is needed to produce the gorgeously coloured variegated leaves for which the ‘Flower of the Holy Night’ is famous.
In the seventeenth century these winter blooms were discovered by Franciscan priests and used in their annual nativity procession. Two hundred years later, in 1828, the United States Minister to Mexico, Mr Joel Roberts Poinsett, was similarly charmed to discover this wonderful exotic plant which blooms with red pointed leaves during the winter, growing by the side of the road. Mexicans and their neighbours in Guatemala called this special plant the flor de noche buena, or Flower of the Holy Night, with its star-shaped leaf formations symbolising the Star of Bethlehem.
The beautiful Christmas Eve Flower so captivated the new Minister that he introduced it to the United States, where it took on his own name and rapidly rose to prominence as a favoured festive decoration. So meteoric was this rise that poinsettias are now the most widely cultivated plant on Earth. There is even a National Poinsettia Day on December 12th, right in the middle of Advent season, when the Christmas Spirit is fully upon us.
Poinsettias look lovely as both individual plants or in mixed tropical containers and succulent gardens with the right climate. Miniature ‘pixie’ poinsettias are also becoming very popular as they fit very nicely onto desks, windowsills and other small nooks and crannies, where they make wonderful Christmas decorations that can brighten up any available space.
Thanks to our globe-trotting ancestors, poinsettias have been known in Europe since the 1570s. As it was then, traditional red is still the favourite poinsettia colour in all nations, but new varieties in a wide array of gorgeous colours – from white, cream and yellow through to shades of orange and pink - are regularly introduced to satisfy the huge customer appetite for the iconic Christmas ornament.
Whilst they make the perfect festive adornment, poinsettias are not just for Christmas. The variety of available colours means these exotic plants can bring exactly the right touch of boho chic to interior styling. In autumn and winter, poinsettias make an ideal pairing with lush, leafy houseplants. With their stunning bracts, they add bright pops of colour and create a cosy, warm yet uplifting atmosphere in a room.
With proper care and attention your poinsettias will bloom from Autumn into the New Year. The golden rule for poinsettias is not to let them get too cold. They must be kept at a minimum temperature of 15-22 degrees Celsius and protected from cold draughts, preferring a warm, sheltered spot and soft filtered light – no shadowy corners for these babies! Allow compost to just start drying out before giving your plant light watering, taking care not to soak them.
Check out Stars for Europe. Happy Christmas!