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The poinsettia's complicated history


There's one plant that is nearly synonymous with the Christmas season. And no, I'm not talking about trees.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a lovely poinsetta (ph) from...

SHAPIRO: The poinsetta, or poinsettia, which typically has deep red-and-green leaves, has been a go-to Christmas gift for generations.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This holiday, surprise your loved one with beautiful poinsetta plants from...

SHAPIRO: In fact, the plant's ties to the Christmas season go way back to the 16th century.

ELENA JACKSON ALBARRAN: It has a history with, you know, Mexico's colonial roots with Spanish Catholicism.

SHAPIRO: Elena Jackson Albarran is a professor of Latin American history at Miami University in Ohio.

ALBARRAN: The Spanish name for it is noche buena, which means Christmas Eve.

SHAPIRO: And the plant inherited another name when it was sent north in 1828 by the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett.

ALBARRAN: And his experience in Mexico and his perception of the Mexican people wasn't all that kind.

SHAPIRO: Albarran says Poinsett established a tense and combative diplomatic tone with the newly independent Mexico.

ALBARRAN: He went on to have a longer history of unsavory political decisions, slave ownership, among other things. And so it is worth kind of questioning where we inherit this name for this plant that we kind of hold as a seasonal icon.

SHAPIRO: There's a growing push to drop both the name poinsetta or poinsettia and its Spanish predecessor, noche buena, and go back to the plant's native roots.

ALBARRAN: The Nahuatl name is cuetlaxochitl.

SHAPIRO: Which means plant that withers, which they tend to do if you are prone to overwatering. And Albarran has noticed a growing interest in the plant's history.

ALBARRAN: So you'll see TikToks and, like, Facebook video reels and Instagram posts...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The untold history of poinsettias.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Long before they were called poinsettias, they were called cuetlaxochitl.

ALBARRAN: ...Young people encouraging people to learn about the Nahuatl native roots of this plant that globally has become sort of the symbol of Christmas.

SHAPIRO: So just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a poinsettia by its native name looks just as vibrant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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