While a good many of our customs originated in Europe, the poinsettia is a
western Christmas tradition.
The poinsettia was named after Joel Poinsett, first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, who imported it from Mexico in 1828. Mr Poinsett loved scientific discoveries and later co founded the predecessor or the institution that we call the Smithsonian. Samples of his “discovery” were sent to horticulturists and botanical gardens. The Ecke family of California was instrumental in developing the bright red poinsettia as a commercial crop.
Today's varieties include pink, gold, white, marble, deep burgundy and a multitude of variegated varieties.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and cultivated by the Aztec Indians. After the Spanish conquest and the introduction of Christianity, the poinsettia was used in Christian rituals. Franciscan priests used the poinsettia in their nativity processions.
The red in a poinsettia is actually bracts, not the flower. The colorful leaves were used to make reddish dyes. The milky white sap, today called latex, was used as a fever medicine.
Researchers at Ohio State University have extensively researched the effects of ingesting poinsettia foliage and found that it is not toxic. Although it can cause some indigestion, a 50 pound child would have to eat 500 leaves to exceed levels of toxicity. If you have a latex allergy, be careful around poinsettia plants. These popular Christmas plants contain a compound similar to that found in rubber latex -- and can cause a severe allergic reaction.