THE 4 PLANTS OF CHRISTMAS: POINTSETTIA

Dec. 20, 2015: And now to our fourth and last plant, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. That beautiful plant we adorn our hearth with was developed from a roadside weed that grows in southern Mexico.

(Editor's note: If you have been following this series, as I unfortunately have, you may have noticed that the author started out with 12 Christmas plants and ended up giving us only four. Such web journalistic bait-and-switch tactics are insulting to our readers, at least those that can count, and are not condoned, nor sanctioned by this website)

The plant was used for medicinal and dye purposes and, in Aztec symbolism, the blood red bracts stood for the blood the gods sacrificed to create the universe and that blood debt we owed the gods through sacrifice. To me, that gives a whole new perspective and respect for the plant. As I sit at Christmas dinner, with family around the table, I can gaze at the poinsettia centerpiece and think, "Today someone will be sacrificed".

Of course, poinsettia was not its original name. Cuetlaxochitl was its name and it means . . . I don't know what. I looked it up on Google Translate and its says its Uzbek, but I'm pretty sure its Aztec. I don't think you can count on Google Translate when it comes to ancient languages and definitely not for Joel PoinsettJoel Poinsetthieroglyphics, unless maybe you've got a hieroglyphic keyboard. But, I digress. So it had this weird Uzbek like name that maybe the Aztecs could pronounce but the rest of us couldn't. In comes Joel Roberts Poinsett, first Uzbek GuyUzbek GuyUS ambassador to Mexico, who was also an amateur botanist. He took cuttings of the plant and sent them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. John Bartram, a famous (check out previous blog The Bartrams: The Not-So-Boring Botanists series, Dec 2012)) nurseryman in Pennsylvania is credited to have marketed the first poinsettia. Some say another nurseryman, Robert Buist, first introduced it, but he's not in my blog series, so he's notAztec GuyAztec Guy as famous. Poinsettia was named after Joel Poinsett and Cuetlaxochitl faded away with the rest of the Aztecs. Thank God for that! I mean that name, not the Aztecs. They could have given it a simpler name like Gul, which is Uzbek for flower.

To get those gorgeous fully flowered plants at Christmastime is not an easy growing feat. Poinsettias are very temperature and light sensitive. They are short day plants, meaning that flowering is initiated when daylight lessens. The plants actually measure the period of darkness. Starting in October (if you want plants you can sell for Christmas), the plants must have uninterrupted darkness for 14 hours a day. The plants are so sensitive to light that if a grower checks the greenhouse at night they must use tiny maglight flashlights lest they interrupt the dark period. I once had a friend that was starting out in the commercial growing business. His first year, he grew poinsettias and had a beautiful crop of them, two weeks AFTER Christmas. Several thousand dollars down the drain and he couldn't figure out why. Late one evening, he was in the greenhouse when the garbage company came to empty his dumpster beside the greenhouse. The lights of the truck shown through the greenhouse illuminating it for a couple minutes, enough time to break the dark period and screw up the flowering. Case solved.

I hope you enjoyed this Christmas plant series. With only four more shopping days left, I'm out of here. Xompaqui ihueyihuiuh acuetlaxochitl! (That's Aztec for "Have a happy great festival with poinsettia!)

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