How the rugged poinsettia became our favorite holiday flower

Think “poinsettia,” and you think “Christmas,” right? Well, think again. At the time of the first Christmas, the closest poinsettia to the little town of Bethlehem was 8,000 miles away, clinging to life in a rocky canyon in what’s now southwestern Mexico.

“The Aztec called the plant cuetlaxochitl (brilliant flower), and the Maya referred to it as k’alul wits (ember flower),” says Mark Hoddle of the University of California Riverside’s department of entomology. He became fascinated with the poinsettia while working on his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s, exploring ways to control whiteflies, a common scourge of the holiday plants.

There’s evidence the indigenous peoples of Central America appreciated the plant for its seasonal red leaves, he says, but mostly they saw the medicinal value.

“When you break a leaf or branch of a poinsettia, it leaks a milky white sap,” Hoddle says. “The cultures believed that sap had healing properties.” Aztecs applied the sap to the breasts of nursing mothers to increase milk production. They also used the sap as a depilatory.

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