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POINSETTIA by Walter L. Meagher


photo by Jennifer Haas

I have not met an English boy who knows that McDonald’s is an American invention – it is thought to be English – nor an American lad who knows that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. was the gift of an Englishman, an heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Origin and heritage are even more confounded in the life of plants.

The grass that everywhere colors with a tinge of pink the open spaces of El Charco, especially the Northern Upland, is from Africa, called Natal Grass (Rhynchelytrum repens). More than any other plant, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a source of red in the palette of Christmas color. In North America, it is thought to be a US plant. But it is not. While not growing wild in El Charco, at Christmas time, noche buena (poinsettia) decorates shop doorways, surrounds the statue of El Pípila at the glorieta by Pollo Féliz, ornaments the Jardín, and may construct a Christmas tree in front of the parroquia

Poinsettia is a Mexican plant, called cuetlaxochitl (cuet-lax-o-chitl) in Nahuatl, included in the Christmas celebrations by Franciscan friars ever since the 17th century. Specimens were brought to the US by the avid amateur botanist, physician, lawyer and first Minister from the US to the Republic of Mexico – Joel Poinsett (1779-1851). The specimen he brought back was found at Taxco del Alarcon, a famous colonial silver mining town west of Mexico City.

In its native habitat, on mountain slopes facing the Pacific Ocean, poinsettia is a scraggly small tree, lean of limb, tangling in the understorey, with narrow leaves and a brilliant flower. Cuetlaxochitl bears the name, and must forever do, of a man who meddled in Mexican politics, disgraced himself, was recalled, and contributed to a reputation for interference in Mexican domestic affairs that might never be lived down.

Turning to the plant itself, looking closely at the flower, we see a character it shares with other members of the genus Euphorbia, of which there are ten species in El Charco: a large purse-shaped nectary. A pollinator – a butterfly – need not search for this treasure: it glistens in the sunlight, open to all visitors. And as this is the case, I have seen a praying mantis on a poinsettia flower, drawn by the abundance of pollinators, waiting a chance to nab a butterfly.

There is another character to examine: the female flower hangs down, as if on a thread; and when it has been fertilized, and the seeds grown, the fruit hangs in the same way, on a thread. Its form is distinctive: the fruit has three lobes, and in each lobe, or ovary, is one seed. When mature, the pod bursts (dehisces), and the seeds are scattered, as if shot.

Finally, there is the question of poison. One can never be sure, with any member of Euphorbiaceae (Spurge family), whether a species is poisonous. It may be. It very likely is. The other side of poisonous is utility in the la medicina vernacula. In this department of botany, knowledge of the uses of plants for medical reasons, the Mexican pharmacopoeia far exceeds any knowledge Joel Poinsett had as a physician trained in Edinburgh. After all, people working with plants on a daily basis in parts of Mexico, in places as remote as small villages on the Pacific Ocean-facing mountains, have been doing so for thousands of years. 



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