The poinsettia’s forgotten history
A curious U.S. ambassador and the American family who patented poinsettia varieties are behind the holiday ubiquity of a plant that originated in Mexico.
Why it matters: The poinsettia, which blooms for only a couple of weeks in November and December, is one of the best-selling flowers worldwide. It’s especially popular in the U.S, where the market was worth an estimated $153 million in 2020.
- But because most poinsettia varieties are patented in the U.S. and have international protections, Mexican farmers have been forced to pay breeder's rights fees to grow and sell them.
The backstory: Aztecs in the 14th century called the plant cuetlaxóchitl, which roughly means "leathered flower" in Náhuatl.
- They used it for warrior rituals and dyes, and the latex sap to treat wounds and help break a fever.
- Other Mesoamerican civilizations had different names. The Maya, for example, called it k'alul wits, which roughly translates to "fire flower."
It wasn't until the first Spanish settlers arrived in Mexico in the 16th century that the plant was specifically linked to the Christmas season.
- Colonizers used what they eventually called "flor de nochebuena," or Christmas Eve flower, to decorate nativity scenes to mark Christmas and attract people to the faith.
In 1825, four years after Mexico became an independent nation, diplomat Joel Robert Poinsett — who counted botany among his hobbies — was appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to the country.
- Admiring the plant during Christmas, Poinsett sent samples to friends, before the U.S. had phytosanitary regulations.
- Eventually, a sample from Poinsett made its way to a Philadelphia Botanic Garden, which debuted the plant in the U.S. at an 1829 flower show. It then spread throughout the country and across Europe under the name poinsettia.
Among the poinsettia's early propagators were the Ecke family, who patented it after the 1930 Plant Patent Act was passed. The family made the plant smaller, before mass-marketing it as a "California Christmas flower."
- The Ecke family's patent is one of many for poinsettia varieties that remains in place today. Those varieties also have global protections through the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.
- Mexican growers also cannot sell their poinsettias to the U.S. as full plants, just as cuttings, because of regulations related to soil.
What to watch: The patents affect most varieties of the plant, but Mexican botanists and farmers are working to register other varieties that won't be subject to the fees.
- So far, they've registered seven varieties with the Mexican regulator — the first step in obtaining international protections.
Between the lines: For years, Mexicans used the word poinsettismo, referring to Poinsett, to describe actions perceived as American meddling ahead of the Mexican-American War.
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