Christmas decorations are never complete without this beautiful Mexican plant. One of the most important aspects of Spain's sixteenth-century colonisation of Mexico involved converting the native Aztec people to Christianity - namely Catholicism. Religious orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans sent clergy from Spain to help with this process. The legend of the first poinsettia dates from this time.
According to the legend, an Aztec child was on her way to visit the crib at her village church on Christmas Eve. She was the only child without a gift to bring to the Baby Jesus, and was humiliated. But an angel appeared to her and told her to pick up all the branches she found along the road, and give them to the crib.
When she laid the unlikely gift at the manger, she saw that a beautiful red flower, in the shape of a star, had appeared on each of the branches. That was the first poinsettia - a flower widely used from then on, especially by the Franciscan order, as part of Christmas celebrations in Mexico.
In fact, the plant would have been familiar to the Aztecs for centuries before the Spaniards arrived. It is particularly associated with the area of Taxco del AlarcÃ³n in the south of Mexico, where it flowers in the winter months. The Aztecs used its red 'flowers', which are actually the upper leaves of the plant, to make red or purple dye, and drew its sap as a medicine against fever. In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, its name was cuitlaxochitl, or the flower that grows in soil.
Christian symbolism brought new names for the plant. In Mexico and Guatemala, the legend of the Aztec child's gift to the Baby Jesus led to it being called Flor de la Noche Buena, the Flower of the Holy Night. In Spain it is also called Flor de Pascua, or Easter Flower; in Chile and Peru, it is known as the Crown of the Andes. The star shape of the leaves is said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, which led the faithful to the Baby Jesus on the night of the first Christmas. Their red colour represents Christ's blood sacrifice at Calvary, and the white leaves remind us of the purity of the Baby Jesus.
But why the name poinsettia? This comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett, who, in 1825, became the first ambassador to Mexico from the United States of America. He was a scholarly man, whose eagerness to give the United States a national museum contributed strongly to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
In 1828, Poinsett took an interest in the red-flowered Mexican plants. He took specimens of them to grow for himself on his plantations in South Carolina; he also sent them to his friends, who eventually began to sell them. They soon became popular in the United States, and the name poinsettia was coined for them in the mid-1830s, in honour of the man who first brought them to the country.
The poinsettia remains an indispensable symbol of Christmas, with its vivid red and green colours, and star-shaped leaves. But as well as this, its long history reminds us of the meeting of different cultures, and the discovery of new worlds.