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How the poinsettia took over Christmas

The poinsettia plant is a ubiquitous Christmas staple. Every year, just after Thanksgiving, it emerges en masse at nurseries, big-box retailers, fundraisers, and holiday parties.

It’s one of the most popular plants in the world, with annual sales of ~90m units and a global retail impact of nearly $1B. But behind the beautiful, blood-red bracts of the poinsettia, there’s a story rife with geopolitics, patent wars, a dethroned monopoly, and complex supply chains.

How did this Mexican shrub become America’s best-selling holiday plant? Indigenous to Southern Mexico, the poinsettia (or cuetlaxochitl) was first used by 14th-century Nahua people for dye and medicinal purposes.

The plant’s brilliant red bracts — which are leaves, not flowers — were so revered by the Aztec emperor Montezuma that thousands of them were transported to the high-altitude capital of Tenochtitlan each winter. After Spain colonized Mexico, Franciscan monks dubbed the plant flor de Nochebuena (“Flower of the Blessed Night”) and began to showcase it in annual Christmas processions.


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