Home » Did you know: History of the cuetlaxochitl (a.k.a. Poinsettia)

Did you know: History of the cuetlaxochitl (a.k.a. Poinsettia)

Do you know the true history of the cuetlaxochitl? Also known as the Poinsettia. Also known as La flor de noche buena. That gorgeous red flower we’ve all come to know and love during the Christmas holidays has origins in Mexico.

Cuetlaxochitl is pronounced (ket-la-sho-she). Practice!

Cuetlaxochitl is pronounced (ket-la-sho-she).

Cuetlaxochitl is pronounced (ket-la-sho-she).

Okay, onward!

This beautiful shrub that grows to a height between 2 and 16 feet, thrives in tropical forests down the Pacific coast of Mexico to Guatemala and Chiapas. There are more than one hundred varieties of Poinsettia plants, and its scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which translated literally means, the most beautiful Euphorbia.

History of the cuetlaxochitl

In its earliest recorded history, the Poinsettia’s origins are from the Aztec nation.

A moment of respect, por favor.


The Aztecs called it cuitlaxochitl, and used the flower to produce a red and/or purple dye which were then used in textiles. It was one of many beautiful flowers and plants which were cultivated within the Aztec empire. Used for beauty and medicinal purposes, this plant was considered sacred. The bold red color represented sacrifice and the name itself loosely translates as “Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure”. (Drink Cultura: Chicanoismo, by Jose Antonio. Burciaga)

Back then it was believed cuetlaxochitl and milky white sap it produced was used as a fever reduction medication by the Aztecs.  More notes from Drink Cultura: During the time period of 1440–1446, Aztec leader Tlacalel and his half-brother Montezuma had visited the gardens of Oaxatcpec (now known as Morelos, MX).

They were so enchanted by the cuetlaxochitl they helped revitalize the cultivation of la cuetlaxochitl.

We have them to thank for our favorite holiday bloom!

Taxco, Mexico, 16th century

It was here when this sacred crimson flower became part of Christmas tradition. 

There are many tales, but this is a common one: The story goes that a young girl who was too poor to afford a gift for Jesus’ birthday was visited by an angel. This angel told the girl to collect grasses and weeds by the side of the road, and put them in front of the altar at the village church. Upon doing this, deep red blossoms are said to have sprouted from the weeds, which transformed into immaculate poinsettia flowers.

The parable tells that the red color of the cuitlaxochitl blossom represented the blood from Jesus’ crucifixion, and the star shape of the leaf represented the star of Bethlehem.

The story of the young girl inspired Mexican Franciscan friars to incorporate the Cuitlaxochitl flower into Christmas tradition in the 17th century, in which it has played a role ever since.

Introduction to the United States

It was not until 1828 that la nochebuena was introduced to the United States. The first United States ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, because fascinated by the noche buena shrub in a visit to the Taxco area.

Although a politician by profession, Poinsett’s true passion was in botany. He brought some of the plants back to South Carolina with him, where he began cultivating them, and sending them to friends and to botanical gardens.

In fact, the name poinsettia was derived the Joel Roberts Poinsett’s last name in 1836. Eventually the poinsettia plant found its way to Robert Buist, a nursery owner from Pennsylvania. Buist gave the poinsettia plant its first commercial introduction.

But now that we (I) know the original name, why not call it cuetlaxochitl? Pronounced (ket-la-sho-she).

Is it toxic or not?

The scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which translates to “the most beautiful Euphorbia.” It belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family, which includes a diverse range of plants including some that are quite toxic.

Despite a common misconception, they are not deadly. While their sap can cause mild irritation to the skin and stomach if ingested, they are generally considered to be low in toxicity. However, it is still advisable to keep them out of reach of pets and small children.

RELATED: Mexi-Style Painted Poinsettias

Cuitlaxochitl in modern times 

Cuitlaxochitl poinsettia

Albert Ecke was a German immigrant living in Los Angeles, who became interested in the nochebuena around the year 1900. Ecke began selling poinsettia blossoms on street corners, and started what was to become a poinsettia monopoly.

Albert Ecke’s son, Paul Ecke, engineered a technological secret that eliminated competition in the poinsettia blossom market. By grafting two varieties of poinsettias together, Ecke created a Poinsettia plant that was fuller and denser, and that had never before seen large and beautiful blossoms.

Despite this new grafting technique, it was not until Paul Ecke’s son, Paul Ecke Jr., that the Ecke family enterprise expanded and caused a poinsettia proliferation in the United States. Ecke Jr.’s company began shipping orders by train and air throughout the United States.

They also mailed free nochebuena plants to television station for display between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Paul Ecke Jr. appeared on Bob Hope’s Christmas special, as well as The Tonight Show to promote the plants.

During the 1990s, the Ecke family grafting secret was discovered by researchers, and the Eckes’ monopoly diminished. As of 2008, however, the Ecke family still controlled 50% of poinsettia sales worldwide.


The blooming and care of the cuitlaxochitl

Cuitlaxochitl’s bloom is a unique process. It involves the transformation of its leaves rather than its flowers.

The “flower” of the poinsettia are actually colored bracts, which are modified leaves. The actual flowers of the plant are the small, yellow structures found in the center of the bracts.

Cuetlaxochitl are “short-day plants.” The process begins as the days get shorter in the fall. Long periods of darkness are required (about 14 hours of darkness in each 24-hour period) for several weeks in a row. This triggers the development of their brightly colored bracts.

They also require bright light during the day and moderate temperatures. Too much light or too warm temperatures at night can delay or prevent the blooming process.

The bracts change color in response to the plant’s exposure to light and dark cycles. The most common color is the traditional bright red, but bracts can also be pink, white, yellow, and even purple, depending on the variety.

Keep the plant in ideal conditions.  Avoid drafts. Keeping the soil moist but not soggy.  Provide ample indirect sunlight. 

After the winter months, the bracts will gradually fade and the poinsettia will enter a resting phase. With proper care, it can be coaxed back into bloom the following year.

Cuitlaxochitl, or la nochebuena plant remains a big part of Christmas season.

Every time you see this plant around the holiday season – remember to honor its origins – Mexico and the Aztec empire! 

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