tulips w christmas tree

Fig 1. Tulips with Christmas Tree

Fig. 2 Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

Fig. 2 Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

When you leave your homeland, you don’t just leave family, friends, language, familiar places behind – you also leave traditions and trappings associated with them.  For me, one such thing is a planter with 5-6-inch-tall red tulips set in reindeer moss (Cladonia, a lichen) (Fig.1) or moss, perhaps decorated with some small pinecones and a couple of fly agarics (Amanita muscaria) made of papier-mâché.  For the first few decades in this country, I looked for bulbs of short, red tulips year-round, but there were none to be found.  All tulips were – and still are too tall!

Nowadays, like most Americans, I associate Poinsettia (Fig. 2) with Christmas and so do people in Sweden and other countries around the world. At least in California, the plant floods nurseries and box stores even before Thanksgiving.  Poinsettia for most people symbolizes good cheer and wishes for mirth and celebration at Christmas time.  In religious communities, the shape of the red parts of the plants may symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color the blood of Christ.

A Legend
The Legend of the Poinsettia Tomie dePaola

fig. 3 The Legend

According to legend, Poinsettia as the Christmas flower started several centuries ago on Christmas Eve in a small Mexican village. A little girl named Pepita had no gift to present to the Christ child at the Christmas Eve service.  As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy.  Pedro tried to console her, telling her that even the humblest gift, if given in love, would be acceptable in His eyes.  Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds and fashioned them into a small bouquet.  Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering.  She fought back tears as she entered the small chapel.  As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s words: “Even the humblest gift, if given in love, will be acceptable

in His eyes.” She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.  Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw the flowers were certain they had witnessed a Christmas miracle.  Thomas Anthony “Tomie” dePaola, an American writer and illustrator, offers a retelling of the timeless legend in his children’s book The Legend of the Poinsettia, published in Spanish and English in 2008 (Fig. 3).

Classification, Habitat and Morphology

Poinsettia – also called Christmas star, Lobster plant, Mexican flame-leaf, et al. in English (Julstjӓrna in Swedish!) – is in Euphorbiaceae (Spurge family), one of the largest plant families in the world.  The genus Euphorbia to which Poinsettia belongs (see below) consists of about 2000 species, making it one of the largest genera of flowering plants.  (Euphorbia antiquorum (Malayan tree spurge) is the type species for the genus Euphorbia, described by Linnaeus in 1753.) Euphorbia members all share the feature of having a latex-like sap, more or less poisonous depending on the species.

Poinsettia is a perennial plant, native to southern Mexico and Central America, where it grows as a shrub in mid-elevational, deciduous, tropical forests. Most populations are reported to grow on west-facing slopes in steep canyons.

If the subject of Poinsettia comes up in a conversation, many people immediately declare – “the red parts are not petals but leaves,” which is correct; what surrounds the small flowers in the middle of the plant are large, red bracts, which are modified leaves. The knoblike flowers in the middle of the red bracts are cyathia, the floral characteristic that puts Poinsettia in the genus Euphorbia.  A cyathium in Euphorbia consists of unisexual flowers, both staminate (male) and pistilllate (female) flowers without sepals and petals, borne within a campanulate involucre, a ring of small bracts around the flower cluster.

Some History
Fig. 4 Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) Wikipedia

Fig. 4 Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) Wikipedia

I will admit that until I started researching the topic of this article, I thought Poinsettia was a generic (genus) name.  The ending “ia” is not uncommon in generic plant names, for example, Begonia, Forsythia, and Magnolia.  Now I know that a German scientist, J.F. Klotzsch, described the plant as a new species in 1834 (Euphorbia pulcherrima) (specific epithet meaning ‘most beautiful’), and that the plant’s common English name is derived from Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851) (Fig. 4), a physician, diplomat, botanist, the first appointed U.S. Ambassador (Minister) to Mexico, and a U.S. Secretary of War.  Poinsett had found the plant in Taxco in the 1820s, became enchanted by the red “blooms” and sent some cuttings to his home in Greenville, South Carolina, where he later began growing them.   Now there are more than a hundred varieties of Poinsettia, grown in every State in the U.S., with “blooms” in shades of pink, white, yellow, purple, or multicolored.  The red variety is, however, the most popular.

Poinsettia, called Cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs, was a symbol of purity and cultivated by them long before the European colonization of the Americas.  The red pigment was used as a dye and the milky sap as a medicine to “control fevers.”  After the Spanish conquest during the 17th century, Franciscan friars named the plant with the “bright red flowers” Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night or Christmas Eve flower), because it bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

A Quandary?

You may be aware that the American Ornithological Society has announced that it will rename all birds currently named for human beings.  The new names will reflect the species’ appearance or habitat, i.e., some trait associated with the actual bird and not with the “colonial explorer” who first identified it.  The Ornithological Society maintains that some of the birds (not all) were named for people who held views considered “repugnant” today.  For example, John James Audubon, the naturalist for whom the Audubon’s shearwater is named, was “an unrepentant slaveholder who opposed emancipation” and Winfield Scott, for whom the Scott’s oriole is named, “led the forced eviction of the Cherokee along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.”

Would American plant societies do the same or are there just too many plants?  Many botanists agree that scientific plant names (the specific epithet) should be descriptive and not include people’s name.  Does a common name (what birders use) or a scientific name of a plant associated with something or someone we consider “repugnant” today warrant change?  Should the genus Claytonia, named in honor of John Clayton, be changed, because he owned slaves to work his tobacco plantation? (Should Sir Francis Drake Boulevard be changed to the Coastal Miwok Trail?) Do we no longer want to call the plant we associate with Christmas ‘Poinsettia,’ because Joel R. Poinsett was a proponent of slavery and owned slaves himself; as Secretary of War oversaw the Trail of Tears; and presided over the continuing suppression and relocation of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, et al.?

Would ‘Christmas Star’ (Swedish translation) ever catch on?
Comments: evabuxton@sbcglobal.net