The flowering plant traditionally associated with Christmastime has a colorful history. The bright red-and-green poinsettia is one of America’s best-selling flowers, generating $325 million in sales during the holiday season.
Christine Engelbrecht, a plant pathologist at Iowa State University, says there are a couple of ways to pronounce the flower’s name. Both "poin-SET-ah" and "poin-SET-ee-ah" are correct, but most of the plant experts at ISU perfer the four-syllable version "poin-SET-ee-ah." She says it’s a matter of personal preference, like "tah-MAY-toe" versus "tah-MAH-toe."
The original poinsettia grew more like a tree in its native Mexico, typically reaching ten feet in height. Engelbrecht says the poinsettia dates back decades in the US, but has a much longer history south of the border. It wasn’t used by Europeans until the 1800s, but the poinsettia has been documented in Mexico for many centuries.
The plant has a physiology which makes it bloom once the days get short and the nights get long, making it the perfect flowering plant for late December and the Yuletide season. "It’s unusual in that it blooms around Christmas and it has that pretty red bloom. It was originally used for Christmas by Jesuit missionaries in Mexico back in the 1800s," she says. "They used the poinsettia as part of a nativity procession. That was the first recorded instance of it being used around holiday times."
The flower didn’t become popular in the U-S until the 1860s after a U-S ambassador to Mexico introduced it to people back home.