Poinsettias, those plants with winter leaves of scarlet hue, cheap, ubiquitous at Christmas time, straggly before spring, are by ancestry Mexican, though a few hang out in Guatemala, too. Their leaves turned vivid (and of course it is not the flowers, but the leaves that are red) through thousands of Decembers when the Indigenas were expanding empires and destroying them, when they were carving giant Olmec heads and building waterways and pyramids, when shamans turned to leopards and gardens floated in the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. They flourished here long before the Spanish ever dreamed there might be a route to India. Or knew there was an India.
We first saw them growing in Uruapan in Michoacan, about a thousand feet lower than where we now live. They were on TREES, for heaven’s sake, and we really weren’t convinced they were actually poinsettias and not some extravagant look-alike. They grew everywhere, in yards and parks and, it seemed, coming out of cracks in concrete. They were like ailanthus trees in Brooklyn. They are most common, and I suspect healthiest, on the lower slopes of the west side of Mexico.
Here is a picture of one we took on our eastern side, up at about five thousand feet. As you can see, it is struggling a bit in this wetter, colder place.
Here is what they are called in Nahuatl: cuetlaxochitl, which means something like plant with leathery leaves.
There are legends. How could there not be, for such a startling plant?
One of the legends, from Taxco, says some of the people living there didn’t want to pay tribute to Moctezuma. When he heard this, Moctezuma took a great army to put an end to the rebellion, leaving a huge number of dead in his wake. In the spreading pools of blood from the dead, beautiful scarlet flowers grew up, commemorating them. Sometime later, Moctezuma decided to take a bit of a vacation in Taxco which was said to have lovely weather. He found the cuetlaxochitl growing wild in the forests and brought some of them to his botanical gardens at Huaxtepec where he dedicated himself to their cultivation.
Others say that the cuetlaxochitl symbolizes the blood of those sacrificed to the sun to renew its strength, or to commemorate warriors killed in battle.
Here’s another legend:
When God (which one I don’t know) created nature on Mother Earth, he asked the plants to choose their best flowers for the new-born world. He also asked that they choose the flowers that possessed the most important virtues: beauty, love, harmony and wisdom.
One day, God saw that one plant especially, from the moment of its birth, wanted badly to be chosen. It worked hard to show its most sacred essence. But no matter how much it struggled to be chosen, no one stopped to admire it. No one appreciated it since its flower was very tiny and its leaves very large. This saddened the plant, but it struggled on to be chosen even though no one seemed to love it.
Upon noticing all its effort, God went to the plant and said to it: I see that you are very beautiful and that you give much love even though your beauty isn’t valued. For this I am going to share my blood with you. He painted the plants leaves with his blood, and thus they were transformed into the most beautiful scarlet leaves ever seen. So it became a most beautiful flower which burst into color at the time of year which celebrated the birth of that being who represented the love and divine essence of the universe and took on the name Flor de Nochebuena, Flower of Christmas Eve, the truly Good Night.
In this way, the Flor de Nochebuena is welcomed every year bringing beauty, love, hope wisdom and harmony to all the people on earth.
Perhaps this last legend arose at the time when the Spanish were whipping Catholicism into the mix of Mexican religions, in the 16th century. That’s a subject for another post, as is naming the Flor de Nochebuena "poinsettia" after Joel Roberts Poinsett, rambunctious American minister to Mexico in the 1820’s.
In the meantime, y’all have a Very Merry Christmas! We are headed to the Bay Area to see a good number of our kids and grandkids.