Why are our Poinsettias Called Nochebuenas Here in Mexico?

Bob Price - Vallarta Botanical Gardens
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December 10, 2012

Flor de Nochebuena – Poinsettia Pulcherrima

Vallarta Botanical Gardens has opened up a Question & Answer opportunity regarding those curious about gardening or botanical questions titled "Tropical Gardening Q & A."

In answer to the question, "Why are our poinsettias called nochebuenas here in Mexico?" VBG supplies the following response:
You've got your history backward! The plant you refer to, now so emblematic of the Christian celebration, originates in Mexico and predates the Spanish conquistadores.

Its "real name" is cuetlaxochitl in the Nahuatl language; the Aztecs used the wild plant medicinally, to reduce fever, and commercially, to concoct a red dye.

The Franciscan missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries "Christianized" the plant, pointing to its star shape (star of Bethlehem) and red color (blood of Christ). They may also have been the source of the legend of a poor girl having nothing to offer on the Christmas altar and being led to a bunch of weeds that were miraculously transformed into the brilliant bracts of Euphorbia pulcherrima. Once Christianity had taken hold in Mexico and Spanish became the dominant language, the common name became flor de nochebuena, or "Christmas Eve" plant.

It wasn't until the 1820s, when the United States sent a representative to make contact with the newly independent republic of Mexico, that the name you associate with the plant was used in the north. That diplomat, one Joel R. Poinsett, collected samples of the plant and took them home with him, where they were called poinsettias in his honor.

To submit your gardening or botanical questions, simply send an email to info@vbgardens.org and leave the "Q&A" in your subject line.

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