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Poinsettia Day: Origins of the Christmas plant

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Associated with the Christmas season are many colorful symbols, such as the poinsettia, which is celebrated annually on Dec. 12, Poinsettia Day. The striking red and green plant is named in honor of Roberts Poinsett, American botanist and physician. While serving as the first Minister to Mexico, Poinsett came across the plant in Southern Mexico and sent cuttings of the plant to his plantation home in Greenville, South Carolina. Poinsett, who later founded the institution known today as the Smithsonian Institution, died on Dec. 2, 1851, hence the designation of Poinsettia Day.

It is not surprising that the connection of the plant with Christmas goes back to 17th Century Mexico where the plant is called La Flor de la Nochebuena or Flower of the Holy Night. According to poinsettiaday.com, the plant is also displayed on Dec. 12, known as Dia de la Virgen, or the Day of the Virgin.

Mexican legend also associates the flower with a young girl, who had nothing with which to honor the Baby Jesus in a Christmas Procession. An angel is said to have spoken to her and told her that any gift given with love would be acceptable. She looked around and found only weeds which she gathered to give, but what she had gathered to place around the manger was miraculously transformed into the beautiful red star flower now called poinsettia.

Although the botanical name of the popular plant Euphorbia pulcherrima (literally, "the most beautiful Euphorbia") was originally assigned in 1833, the plant was later renamed Poinsettia Pulcherrima, in honor of Poinsett for his achievements in government and horticulture. Thanks to the efforts of Poinsett and others, the distinctive red and green plant is now a universal symbol of Christmas. According to poinsettiaday.com, poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada with sales contributing more than $250 million to the U.S. economy-at the wholesale level.

Click here to learn more about Poinsettia Day and to read a poem by Claude McKay, one of the writers connected to the Harlem Renaissance, reflecting upon his childhood days of growing up in Jamaica, as he recalls fond memories of “The poinsettia’s red, blood red in warm December.”

Take a look at the video featuring the Paul Ecke poinsettia farm in California. Ecke was instrumental in getting Congress to recognize Poinsettia Day.

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