A vibrant and cheerful plant that we see invited into various winter celebrations that are commonly known as ‘Poinsettias’ might prefer another name…
Euphorbia pulcherrima is the latin botanical name for this popular seasonal plant that is in the spurge family. The common modern name origin of what we know as the Poinsettia in the United States derives from a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the first U.S. minister to Mexico (1825) and whose policies made the Mexican government and the people despise and demand for his removal. For the five years that he was in Mexico he botanized local wild lands, sending specific specimens to the U.S. for cultivation.
The plant is referred to as Cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs, which translates to, ‘flower that withers; mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure’. They were honored by the Mexíca nation as it is said to have been cultivated in their gardens and used in rituals. Mayans refer to the plant as K’alul Wits which translates to ’ember flower’.
Cuetlaxochitl grows in the wild from southern Mexico all the way down into Guatemala. The seasonal red dress is not that of petals but of leafy bracts, you have to look closer to observe their flower clusters that bloom in the center, pictured up close in the photograph below.
When they began to be used in Christianized ceremonies in the 1700s they were referred to as La Flor De Nochebuena. The folklore behind the name, La Flor De Nochebuena, is a tale which teaches us that giving from our heart is what truly matters; not the commercialization and capitalism of the holidays that can spoil the magic and joy of the season.
The resilient plant is traditionally invited into usage in several ways; natural medicine, textile dyeing, and magic.
My intention in sharing this perspective is to encourage us to collectively reclaim plant names that are closer to our cultures and invite a curiosity that can transcend into learning more about plants and our cultures.
May we remember the true spirit of plant relatives outside of the disguises colonization and ecological imperialism has forced upon them.
The essence of this enchanting being, perhaps, is one to consider for helping guide our internal compass, to evoke and reignite that inner light of direction, especially during this season. I enjoy growing them in containers on my porch as if they are guardians guiding the way to our doorstep.
Sources: The Center for Agricultural, Food, and the Environment, UMASS
Drink Cultura: Chicanismo by José Antonio Burciaga