W.W. Seymour Conservatory Newsletter story.
Cuetlaxochitl (kwet-lac-SO-sheetl), or poinsettia as it is known in the U.S., is an iconic Christmas symbol. Often, plants that we know and love have rich histories, and their original names and stories aren’t always shared.
Long before cuetlaxochitl became a symbol of Christmas, they were used ceremonially, medicinally and artistically among indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala. The name popularized in the U.S. was not derived from indigenous cultures, but from the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett.
Poinsett, a plantation owner who was also oversaw the suppression and forced displacement of American Indians during the Trail of Tears, considered himself an avid botanist. While in Mexico in 1828, Poinsett saw a vibrant, red-leafed plant at a nativity scene and shipped several cuttings back to the United States.
Within a few years, the poinsettia became a fixture in flower shows and horticulture journals, and Poinsett was often accredited with its discovery. Although “poinsettia” may still be the common name, we can pay homage to the first cultivators of this plant by acknowledging its indigenous names: cuetlaxochitl (which means brilliant flower) by the Aztec and k’alul wits (meaning ember flower) by the Maya.
Originally published in W.W. Seymour Conservatory Newsletter. Click here to read this story and more.