Flower of the Holy Night. How an ancient Aztec bloom became the most popular plant on Earth.

Poinsettias have become the festive flowers of choice throughout Europe, but their roots are on the other side of the ocean, in the Aztec Kingdom of North and Central America, where it was highly prized by Kings Netzahualcoyotl and Montezuma.

Known in Chile and Peru as The Crown of the Andes, the poinsettia is actually a small tropical tree (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and out in the wild can reach heights of up to 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries poinsettia bracts were used by the Aztecs to create a purpleish dye, whilst the sap was utilised as a medicine which helped control fevers.

Red was thought to signifiy purity and so this became the colour of choice.

Sold in Mexico City since at least the Aztec era, poinsettias go on sale in their native land throughout November and after the legendary Día de los Muertos celebration, making them a potent symbol of the season throughout the Americas.

In the seventeenth century the winter blooms were discovered by Franciscan priests and used in their annual nativity procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. Now, in the 21st Century, poinsettias are displayed by the city’s flower sellers alongside Zempasúchil, the distinctive orange carnation which is traditionally used to adorn Day of the Dead altars.

Tip: Think Pink

Plants with pink-tinted leaves are all the rage with Instagram influencers and their fashion conscious followers and there are many poinsettia varieties available in this prettiest of hues.

Mr Poinsett discovers the Mexican Marvel

In 1828 the United States Minister to Mexico, Mr Joel Roberts Poinsett, was charmed to discover this wonderful exotic plant which blooms with red pointed leaves during the winter, growing by the side of the road. Mexicans and their neighbours in Guatemala called this special plant the flor de noche buena, or Flower of the Holy Night, with its star-shaped leaf formations symbolising the Star of Bethlehem.

As Mexican legend has it, a young girl and her brother, brought to their church a bouquet of green poinsettia leaves they’d gathered from the roadside as a present for the baby Jesus. When the girl, Maria, laid them at the nativity scene on Christmas Eve, the green leaves were suddenly transformed into bright red petals, which brought them their evocative name.

The beautiful Christmas Eve Flower so captivated the new Minister that he introduced it to the United States, where it took on his own name and rapidly rose to prominence as a favoured festive decoration. So meteoric was this rise that poinsettias are now the most widely cultivated plant on Earth according to the USDA Floriculture Statistics report, in which poinsettias account for more than 20 per cent of potted plant sales, ringing tills to the tune of around $250million.

Mexico remains a top producer of poinsettias, growing tens of millions of the plants each year, most of which are either sold to the home market or follow in Mr Poinsett’s footsteps by being exported to America. The day of Mr Poinsett’s death is now commemorated on 12th December every year. Known as International Poinsettia Day, the event began in America but is now celebrated around the world. It’s the perfect occasion to buy or gift a poinsettia, right in the middle of Advent season, when the Christmas Spirit is fully upon us.

Tip: Pixie Perfect

Gestaffelter Blumenstrauß mit geschnittenen, blush-farbenen Weihnachtssternen und Trockenblumen in einem geflochtenen Übertopf auf einem Esstisch aus Holz

Poinsettias look lovely as both individual plants or in mixed tropical containers and succulent gardens with the right climate. Miniature ‘pixie’ poinsettias are also becoming very popular as they fit very nicely onto desks, windowsills and other small nooks and crannies, where they make wonderful Christmas decorations that can brighten up any available space.

Discovered by the Spanish and now grown throughout Europe

Thanks to our globe-trotting ancestors, poinsettia’s have been known in Europe since the 1570s, thanks to the writing of Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, who spent time in Mesoamerica studying botany and couldn’t help but notice this marvellous plant growing abundantly in the wild.

The appetite for poinsettias across Europe is just as strong as it is in Mexico and the United States. Around 32 million specimens are sold each year in Germany alone, where more than 700 plant nurseries serve the robust consumer market, according to the marketing initiative of the European poinsettia breeders, Stars for Europe.

In neighbouring Poland, poinsettias are the most-sold flowering house plants as people get in the mood for Christmas in bold and beautiful fashion.

As it was then, traditional red is still the favourite poinsettia colour in all nations, but new varieties in a wide array of gorgeous colours – from white, cream and yellow through to shades of orange and pink – are regularly introduced to satisfy the huge customer appetite for the iconic Christmas ornament.

Tip: Boho Chic

Whilst they make the perfect festive adornment, poinsettias are not just for Christmas. The variety of available colours means these exotic plants can bring exactly the right touch of boho chic to interior styling. In autumn and winter, poinsettias make an ideal pairing with lush, leafy houseplants. With their stunning bracts, they add bright pops of colour and create a cosy, warm yet uplifting atmosphere in a room.