Poinsettia Meaning: Origins of the Christmas Flower

Poinsettia Meaning

For the Aztecs, poinsettia spiritual meaning and symbolism was purity. The Aztecs cultivated the poinsettia for both decorative and medicinal purposes. Poinsettia are native to Mexico and grow as a large flowering shrub. Poinsettia meaning varies somewhat in different cultures.

Poinsettia were brought to the west by Joel Poinsett, an ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. He had a strong interest in plants and sent hundreds of specimens back to America during his travels.

Over time, the poinsettia plant was adopted into Christianity. Poinsettia have been primarily cultivated in America for nearly a century. Today, poinsettias are the most easily recognized flower symbolic of Christmas.

Ancient Poinsettia History and Symbolism

The Aztecs used poinsettia to produce red dye and also medicinally to reduce fevers. The reddish-purple dye was used in cosmetics and for fabric. The crushed plant was used to treat infections. A medicine could be made from the milky sap of the plant. 

In addition, the Nepali women of Mexico traditionally made a tea infusion from the sepals (the green bud casing) to aid women who were breastfeeding. They also used the latex from the plant as a remedy for skin boils and sores. Thus the poinsettia were commonly called the “skinflower.”

The red part of poinsettia are actually leaves called bracts. The “flower” of the poinsettia is the cluster of buds in the center of these vibrant leaves. The Aztecs also called the plant “cuetlaxochitl” which means “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.”

Poinsettia Meaning in History

Read more about red flower color meaning.

Poinsettia Meaning for Christmas

Poinsettia Meaning for Christmas

The association of poinsettia with Christmas and Christianity began after Spain occupied Mexico in the 17th century. Spanish Franciscan priests used poinsettia in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. The plant was appropriate for the festivities due to its vibrant color and winter blooming time.

Poinsettia are also known as the “Christmas Flower” and “Mexican Flame Leaf.” According to a Mexican legend, one day near Christmas a child who was too poor to buy a present for the Christ child picked a bouquet of weeds from the side of the road. When the child reached the church, the plant miraculously blossomed into beautiful red and green flowers.

Due to their association with Christmas, poinsettia have also come to mean good cheer and mirth. The western name for this unique plant, of course, comes from the American ambassador Joel Poinsett. Today in the United States, December 12th is Poinsettia Day. 

The spiritual meaning of poinsettia in other cultures varies. In Spain, poinsettia are associated with Easter rather than Christmas. This is likely a reference to the wounds of Christ. In Peru and Chile, the poinsettia is known as the Crown of the Andes.

Modern Poinsettia History

Within a few years of Joel Poinsett bringing the Mexican Flame Leaf to the West, the plant became popular in America and Europe. In the early 1900s, the American market became the primary source and developer of the poinsettia. Breeders created poinsettia with tighter flower clusters and a more compact size. A popular variety of poinsettias during the 1870s was the “double flowering” plant. The first souble flowering specimen sold for $1000. In today’s money, that would be about $20,000.

Albert Ecke was an immigrant who moved from Germany to California in 1906. He and his family grew fruit and vegetables, lived off the land and began selling poinsettia from a street stand on Sunset Boulevard. At the time, poinsettias were more like a weedy bush, lacking in fullness and definition. However, the stand grew into a thriving business, shipping pointsettia all over the country. The Ecke family had a near monopoly on poinsettia for several decades. Today the Ecke family ranch still accounts for 70% of the pointsettia sold in the United States.

Albert’s son developed a grafting technique for a fuller, more attractive plant. In the next generation, Albert’s grandson began to promote the association between poinsettias and the Christmas holidays. He sent free plants to television stations to display from Thanksgiving to Christmas and appeared on programs like The Tonight Show and The Bob Hope Show to promote the poinsettia.

In the 1990s, other researchers developed their own techniques for producing beautiful poinsettia. However, the Ecke family still controlled the majority of all poinsettia propagation and sales. Poinsettia can grow to a height of 16 feet and thrive in climates where the temperature remains between 50F and 70F degrees. In addition, recent research has shown that poinsettias are not poisonous, as they were long believed to be.

Poinsettia Meaning and Yellow Flower Symbolism

Poinsettia Meaning and Color Symbolism

The Mexican poinsettia is bright red, but poinsettias also come in cream, yellow, pink and peach. The meaning for various colors are listed below. 

Yellow poinsettia symbolize gratitude. Sunshine yellow flowers symbolize the passing of winter and stimulate clear thinking. The color meanings of yellow are enthusiasm, cheerfulness, sense of humor, fun, optimism and intellectuality.

White poinsettia symbolize forgiveness and purity. White flowers can also symbolize contemplation or femininity. White is connected to inner illumination and spirituality. White flowers also include daylilies, gardenias, alyssum and baby’s breath. 

Red poinsettia are symbolic of the merriment and festivities during the holiday season as well as sacrifice. The color psychology for red flowers includes pleasure, desire and vitality. Red flowers are stimulating and eye-catching. The intensity of red flowers creates movement and drama. Accordingly, bright red flowers symbolize cheerfulness and happiness.

Pink poinsettia indicate feminine beauty and are especially popular as a springtime flower in Japan. Pink flowers symbolize love and healing from grief, anxiety or emotional trauma. Pink is related to warmth and love, gentleness, beauty, and an outward orientation.

For more information about flowers and color symbolism, see the article Flower Color Meaning. Flower color meaning can be used in the creation of large floral displays, bouquets and gardens. For poinsettia meaning, a colorful display is perfect for holiday parties and church services!

More Flower Resources

Explore the meaning of flower colors, the history of the Victorian language of flowers, the symbolic meaning of flowers in art and over a dozen articles on specific flowers on this website. Visit Flower Symbolism. Brighten up any space with gifts and decor featuring beautiful flowers! Find posters, prints, canvases and more. All products made in the United States. See all floral art & gifts. More on the web: Top 15 Most Exotic Flowers Around the World.

Flower Symbols Book

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Kathleen Karlsen

Author of Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine

The information in this article is inspired by the book Flower Symbols: The Language of Love by Kathleen Karlsen. Includes extensive flower meanings and folklore about the world’s most beloved flowers. The perfect gift for yourself or a flower lover in your life! 

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