by Russell T. Nagata
Special To West Hawaii Today
If it weren’t for the highly colored leaves, the poinsettia would be best known by some other name. Its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, literally means “most beautiful Euphorbia.” The true flowers of the poinsettia are called cyathia and are the green and white beads tipped with yellow and red in the center of the flowers. The showy parts of the plants are actually modified leaves called bracts.
The poinsettia grows wild in southern Mexico and naturally blooms under the shorter daylight hours of the fall season. The Aztec name for this plant was cuetlaxochitl and was use in many ways. A purplish dye was extracted from the colorful bracts to be used in textiles and cosmetics and the latex sap was used to treat fevers.
The plant was introduced into the United States by Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825-29. Although trained in the medical profession, Poinsett’s real love was botany. On a trip to the Taxco area in 1828, he collected the brilliant red flowering plants and grew them at his South Carolina farm. He distributed the plants to friends, who distributed it to their friends and so on. It’s easy to see how the name originated.