Poinsettia Flower Meaning and Symbolism

At Christmastime, you’ll see a sea of poinsettias for sale in every shop that celebrates the Christmas season. They go particularly well with the festive lights of the season, and match the traditional colors of red and green during this time.

You may think that they represent this season, and while that’s true, there’s a little more to this plant than you may think. The poinsettia has some interesting cultural roots, and quite a lot of symbolism attached to it as a result.

What does ‘Poinsettia’ Mean?

While we know the plant as a poinsettia, this name only became widespread in the 1800s, which honors Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was a botanist, and the first US Minister to Mexico.

Before that, it was known as the Painted Leaf, or the Mexican Flame Flower, (see also Top 18 Common Mexican Flowers You Can Grow) for its vivid color. The scientific name hasn’t changed from Euphorbia pulcherrima. 

It was renamed after Joel Roberts Poinsett as he sent quite a few of these lovely plants to his greenhouses in South Carolina, where he then introduced them to America, and they quickly became a popular plant. 

What do Poinsettias Represent?

While you might assume that a poinsettia has only had a fairly recent connection to the Christmas holiday, this assumption is wildly incorrect. 

The link with the holiday season actually began in 16th century Mexico. There is a legend of a girl named Pepita or María who couldn’t afford to get a gift for Jesus’ birthday. An angel told her to gather weeds from the roadside to place at the altar for a worthy gift.

When she placed them at the altar, these weeds transformed into crimson poinsettias. This legend is more about the gesture than the monetary value of a gift when it comes to offerings. 

From the 17th century onward, poinsettias were grown by Franciscan friars in Mexico for the Christmas season. The formation that the leaves grow in can be seen to resemble the Star of Bethlehem, and the crimson color relates to Jesus’ sacrifice.

While you’ll often find poinsettias in red, they can also come in white, pink, and green flowers. Mainly, these plants have a universal meaning of success, positivity, and good luck for the coming year.

What is the Cultural Significance Behind the Poinsettia?

The Aztecs used poinsettias to make potent dyes, as well as medicine to reduce fever. 

The plant carries many names, though the Aztecs called it Cuetlaxochitl, which translates to “flower that grows in residues or soil”. In Mexico, it’s referred to as the Christmas Eve flower. In Chile and Peru, it’s the Crown of the Andes. 

In Spain, the poinsettia is grown at Easter rather than Christmas, though it has a similar deeply-rooted connection to the holidays.

While some do associate the poinsettia with the western traditions of Christmas, the plant wasn’t actually introduced into America until Joel Roberts Poinsett started growing them in the 1800s.

As these plants are grown all over the world and have been part of tradition for centuries, it’s not hard to see why they are so widespread, with such an unusual and fitting appearance. 

What does a Poinsettia Tattoo Mean?

While poinsettia tattoos are unusual, they still have a lot of symbolism attached to them. They closely link to Christmas and Easter, and immortalize the wealth of positivity and festivity that’s at a height during these holidays. It’s a celebration of family and plenty.

It’s also a good choice to honor someone whose birthday is in December.

When Should You Give Someone a Poinsettia?

Poinsettias are very popular gifts during the holiday season, when they are often designed to be at their best around the holidays, with their vivid blooms. 

One of the benefits of a poinsettia is that these plants will often outlive the holiday season, unlike many plants that are ‘forced’ to grow during a certain holiday, which can drastically cut their lifespan shorter than it would otherwise be. 

You can give someone a poinsettia at any time of year, but the wealth of color these plants provide is sure to be well-received. 

They represent positivity, wellbeing, and the wealth of support in close relationships, as well as taking time to be with each other and strengthen these bonds.

They also make a fitting gift for anyone who has a birthday during December. 

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