The poinsettia, native to the Mexican highlands

Credit: David Tarrant

These poinsettias are growing in the courtyard of Belles Artes in San Miguel de Allende. It is, of course, a flower long associated with the holiday season. Its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, and it is indeed native to the tropical highlands of Mexico.

The ancient Aztec name for the plant was cuetlaxochitl; they used the bracts to make a purplish dye for textiles, and the milky sap was made into a preparation to treat fevers.

Joel Robert Poinsett was the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, 1825–1829. He was an avid botanist and introduced the plant into his own greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina, when he returned to the States. The fact that it was a plant that flowered naturally during the shorter days of winter coinciding with Christmas caused much interest. And the common name poinsettia evolved.

Today, of course, it is a produced widely by greenhouse growers throughout North America.

To keep your poinsettia happy in your home for the next few weeks, keep it on the moist side allowing it to almost dry out between waterings. But be warned: If it totally dries out and wilts, it will recover but lower leaves will soon yellow and start dropping. The best way to tell if it is dry is to touch the top of the soil with your finger. Or lift the pot; if it feels light, then it needs a drink. Try to keep it near a window, and if possible in a cooler room at night.