Euphorbia pulcherrima, or noche buena,
is a species of flower indigenous to Mexico and
Central America. It is commonly known as poinsettia,
after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States
Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into
the US in 1825. It is also called the Atatürk
flower in Turkey.
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub or small tree,
typically reaching a height of 0.6 to 4 m (2 to
16 ft). The plant bears dark green dentate
leaves that measure 7 to 16 cm (3 to 6 inches)
in length. The colored bracts—which are most
often flaming red but can be orange, pale green,
cream, pink, white or marbled—are actually
leaves; because the flowers are unassuming and do
not attract pollinators, brightly coloured leaves
developed (aka bracts). The colors come from photoperiodism,
meaning that they require darkness for 12 hours
at a time for at least 5 days in a row to change
color. At the same time, the plants need a lot of
light during the day for the brightest color.
Because of their groupings and colors, laymen often
think the bracts are the flower petals of the plant.
In fact, the flowers are grouped within the small
yellow structures found in the center of each leaf
bunch, and they are called cyathia.
The species is native to Mexico. It is found in
the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate
elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire
Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala.
It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally
dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. Reports
of E. pulcherrima growing in the wild in Nicaragua
and Costa Rica have yet to be confirmed by botanists.
In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant
is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, residue,
and xochitl, flower) meaning "flower that grows
in residues or soil." The Aztecs used the plant
to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication.
Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as "Noche
Buena", meaning Christmas Eve.
The plant's association with Christmas began in
16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young
girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the
celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that
the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds
from the roadside and place them in front of the
church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted
from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.
From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico
included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.
The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize
the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents
the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
In Spain it is known as "Flor de Pascua",
meaning "Easter flower". In both Chile
and Peru, the plant became known as "Crown
of the Andes".
Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in
homes, churches, offices, and elsewhere across North
America. They are available in large numbers from
grocery, drug, and hardware stores. In the United
States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.