This time of year in Puerto Vallarta, poinsettias are everywhere. Supermarkets, small tiendas and roadside stands as well as the many viveros (plant nurseries) stock abundant supplies.
In Mexico, this luscious leafy flower is called Flor de Noche Buena, the “flower of Christmas Eve.” Like most things in Mexico, it is rich with symbolism. According to legend, a poor little girl, known as Pepita, traveled empty handed to honor the birth of the baby Jesus. She prayed for a gift to present at the altar and an angel appeared to her on the side of the road. (This seems to be a common occurrence where saints and martyrs are involved.) Pepita was instructed to pick the ugly weeds surrounding her and present them at the church. These wild, unattractive plants magically transformed themselves into beautiful leaves that stunningly resembled the blood of Christ. The shape of the inner foliage of the flower resemble a star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem.
Though we’ve been led to believe poinsettias are poisonous, this is ignominious for the delightful bloom. Studies have proven that a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 leaves to have a harmful effect. Considering the nasty taste of the milky sap that is emitted from the stalks, children and pets alike are likely to prefer the tangerines, candy canes and dinner leftovers that adorn tables this time of year.
In the mid 19th century the poinsettia was named in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico, who was a botanist and doctor. The name is unarguably pronounced with or without the ee-ah.
The red blossoms are actually not a flower, but basically a continuation of the leaves, the red color produced through a process called photoperiodism, exposure to dark, rather than light.
The grand day of the poinsettia, when we are bound to see the greatest profusion of them, is the 12th of December, Guadalupana, the date chosen to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe and the holy legend. Coincidentally, this is also the day of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s death in 1851.
Poinsettias can’t survive a frost but will grow into small bushes in the proper climate. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuetlaxochitl, meaning “flower that grows in soil,” so chances are anyone will have some success moving them from decorative centerpiece to
outdoor garden. Good luck and when shopping, according to my experts, for a long lasting poinsettia choose those with little or no yellow pollen showing.
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