Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Poinsettia: Flor de Noche Buena

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in its native Central America is an unattractive lanky shrub. The plants which are familiar to us have been carefully cultivated using controlled lighting to produce colourful, usually red, bracts. The plant was first introduced to the U.S.A. in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, and by the early 1900s had become a popular Christmas houseplant. About 50 years later its popularity spread to the British Isles, where it is now sold in great quantities during the Christmas period.
The following story, read at a carol service in a Brixton, London, church in December 1998, explains how poinsettias became associated with Christmas:
Pepita was a young girl who lived in a small village in Mexico. Every Christmas Eve as everyone in the village gathered in the church for the Mass, every family would bring a gift for the Christ Child. Pepita had nothing to bring – her family was very poor. Her cousin Pedro attempted to console her. He told her, ‘I am certain that even the most humble gift, given with love, will be acceptable in God’s eyes.’
Pepita was determined to bring something, so she found some flowering weeds along the side of the road. She made them into a bouquet, but she was embarrassed at the thought of bringing a bunch of weeds to lay before the manger. But it was the only gift that she had to offer.
2014-12-14 14.55.08The church was almost full by the time she got there and Pepita held the bouquet close to her side hoping that the others would not notice it. She hesitated before walking down the aisle, but she remembered the words of her cousin. She prayed ‘Oh God, this may not be the grandest of gifts, but may it be the gift given with the most love.’ Her spirits began to lift and she walked down the aisle holding the bouquet proudly in front of her. By the time she got to the front of the church her eyes were brimming with tears of love as she knelt and laid her bouquet in front of the nativity scene.
Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blossoms of brilliant red. And everyone there was certain that they had seen a Christmas miracle. From that day on the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. However, you know them as poinsettias.

For an extended version of this legend see J.H. Jackson, The Christmas Flower, New York, 1951.

Images: main, Westminster Quaker Meeting House, London, January 2014; inset, artificial poinsettias decorating grave, St Mary the Virgin churchyard, London Borough of Hillingdon, 14 December 2014.