The legend behind the poinsettia Christmas flower and its special connection to Charleston

Holiday Fun Guide

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- Poinsettias, the number one selling potted plant in the United States, is a familiar sight around the holidays, but did you know it shares a special connection to the Lowcountry?

Native to Mexico, the poinsettia, which can grow to a height of 12 feet in the wild, grows in the fall but primarily blooms in December. Despite their affiliation with winter, poinsettias favor a tropical climate.

“They don’t like to be exposed to wind or cold,” Executive Director of the Charleston Horticultural Society, Kyle Barnette said. “They are a tropical plant and they really do like the humidity of indoors.”

But what many may not know is that the poinsettia might not have been popularized in the United States without the help of Charleston-born Joel Poinsett who found the flower on a trip in 1828.

“While it was indigenous to Mexico, it wasn’t something that you would’ve necessarily found everywhere,” tour guide manager for Bulldog Tours, Andrew Kuhn said.

According to Kuhn, Poinsett was the first minister to Mexico and was visiting a small village there around Christmastime when he first observed the plant. Upon sending it back to South Carolina, the plant flower was named for Poinsett, a common practice at the time.

“It wasn’t like he discovered it or created it, but he was the one who kind of allowed it to become one of the most iconic symbols of the Christmas season,” Kuhn said.

The iconic, red-leafed flower was believed by the Aztecs to be a symbol of purity and peace. It was used in religious ceremonies, as a natural healing remedy, and to make red dye for their clothing.

“Because the Aztecs conducted human sacrifice, they believed how vibrant red it was, was always a sign from the gods that they had accepted the sacrifice,” Kuhn said. “So, the Aztecs looked at it that if there was an abundance of these flowers then everything was very good.”

Now a symbol of the holiday season, poinsettias come in the traditional red, but also white, pink, yellow, apricot, and cream.

But how did this plant come to symbolize Christmas? Well, there are a few tales behind that.

One Mexican folklore goes like this:

There was a small community in Mexico in which they created a manger scene at Christmas. A young girl named Pepita approached the manger where Jesus lay and began weeping because she had no gift to give the child. In some versions of the story, an angel sits down next to her and said: “as long as you give it in love, it will be accepted.” So, the angel told the girl to pull weeds from the side of the road and lay them at the foot of Baby Jesus. The bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers and from that day on, the bright red flowers (poinsettias) were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.

Another theory behind their Christmas symbolism is that the shape of the poinsettia is thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, the star that led the wise men to Baby Jesus. In this theory, the red leaves symbolize the blood of Christ while the white leaves represent purity.

Regardless of which story you believe, Kuhn said not many people know that many popular Christmas traditions, like poinsettias and Fraser fir trees, have a link to the Lowcountry.

“There’s little connections you can find to Christmas all throughout the Lowcountry that have spread beyond South Carolina and are now popular throughout our country,” he said.

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