By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 December 2015)
Poinsettias, which are actually native to Central America, were brought to North America in the early 1800s by the first ambassador from the U.S. to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. They are linked to the Christmas holiday by a Mexican legend featuring a poor little girl named Pepita, who wanted to give a gift to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. She had no money to buy anything, but her brother assured her that Jesus would be pleased with even the smallest present, so she plucked a batch of weeds for him. When she presented this humble bouquet, it transformed into a collection of beautiful red flowers, the “Flowers of the Holy Night”.
The popularity of poinsettias as a North American Christmas flower can be traced to the efforts of Paul Ecke, Sr., a poinsettia grower who marketed the plants in southern California as landscape flowers and in Christmas specials as holiday flowers. These days, poinsettias are typically grown from cuttings in greenhouses, and more than 90% of them can be traced back to Ecke’s California ranch.
Poinsettias, with their bright Christmas-red petals and deep green leaves, bring some much needed colour into the home at Christmastime when few things bloom, so it is unsurprising that they have become popular Christmas decorations. However, many people worry that their pets will be poisoned after snacking on them. Fortunately, although these plants are toxic, their effects are quite mild, typically causing some mouth irritation and upset stomach. It is plants such as Lilies (especially for cats) and Sago Palms (especially for dogs) that pet owners should worry about, as these plants are very poisonous.
For more on the history of Christmas traditions and symbols, as well as gift and food ideas for the holiday season, see the main Christmas page.