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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

Complete your decorating with a cuetlaxochitl or two


The red poinsettia is a traditional Christmas plant, but its origins are decidedly non-Christian. Europeans discovered the colorful Euphorbia pulcherrima in Mexico, near the present-day city of Taxco and the valleys surrounding Cuernavaca. We know poinsettias as indoor plants, but in Mexico, they're large, woody shrubs, often reaching 10 feet in height.

The Aztecs cultivated poinsettias, regarding them as symbols of purity and the new life earned by warriors who died in battle. They called the plant cuetlaxochitl, which means "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure." They used the plant's red bracts to produce a reddish-purple dye for textiles and cosmetics. The plant's milky white sap, or latex, became a medicine to treat fevers; crushed, the plant was applied to skin infections.

After the Spanish conquered and destroyed the Aztec civilization, Franciscan priests began using the poinsettia in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. The priests liked the poinsettia's appropriate holiday color.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, is credited with introducing the plant north of the border. In 1825, while visiting Taxco he became enchanted with the red blooms and sent some plants to his home in Greenville, S.C. A skilled botanist, Poinsett propagated the plants and began distributing them to friends and botanical gardens. Within a few years, plants eventually reached Robert Buist, a nurseryman, who is believed to be the first person to sell the plant in the U.S. In 1833, the plant was given the common name poinsettia, in Poinsett's honor.

In the 1920s, Albert and Paul Ecke began field-growing poinsettias in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area. Today, the Paul Ecke Ranch located in Encinitas, Calif., is the major producer of poinsettia mother plants used for cuttings by commercial growers.

The poinsettia we see today comes from many years of breeding and engineering. During the mid-1950s, plant breeding research began and has led to many of the current improved varieties and cultivars. Today's poinsettia, a free-branching hybrid plant with larger, longer lasting bracts, only slightly resembles the tall, leggy, red plant that grows wild throughout Central America. Hybridizing has resulted in a variety of colors, but red still accounts for more than 70 percent of sales.

Congress recognized the poinsettia's importance - it's the No. 1 flowering potted plant sold in the U.S. -- declaring Dec. 12 as "National Poinsettia Day." This day honors Joel Poinsett who died on Dec. 12, 1851.


Is it poisonous?

For more than 80 years, a rumor has persisted that poinsettia leaves are poisonous when ingested.

In fact, numerous research studies indicate that poinsettias contain no toxic chemicals. According to POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, a large amount -- 500 leaves -- would still not be toxic.

However, we don't recommend eating the plant. As is the case with any other non-food item, if ingested, the poinsettia may cause stomach discomfort. Keep the plant out of reach of young children and pets.

While most people are not sensitive to the plant, it can cause allergic conditions such as mild skin irritation and respiratory problems for some people.

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