Your eyes will not be able to believe so much beauty. At your feet is a beautiful green carpet adorned with fascinating red details that disappear into the horizon. It is so symmetrically arranged that it forms a majestic perfect rectangle. You take out your cell phone and capture the moment to immortalize it. You are in the greenhouses of Xochimilco, a place with a magical view covered by thousands of poinsettia plants.
It is not surprising that every end of year this place, located south of Mexico City, is visited by hundreds of families who seek to decorate their home with poinsettias to give it a Christmas touch.
Red and green are the colors that symbolize Christmas all over the world and they are also the colors of this flower, one of the most beautiful and important in Mexico, which is why for decades this plant has been associated with Christmas celebrations. If the Christmas celebration were a trademark, poinsettias would be its official flower.
It was Mexican lands that saw the birth of this plant so admired in different countries. Since pre-Hispanic times there are records of poinsettias. It is said that before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, ‘the Mexicas and Aztecs’ already adorned Tenochtitlán — the pre-Hispanic city built on a lake that is now Mexico City — with thousands of poinsettia plants. They used it as an offering for their gods.
At that time, before 1521, it was known as ‘Cuetlaxóchitl’, which could mean ‘flower that withers’, this because its beauty can only be appreciated for a few weeks at the end of the year. The flower was used in religious rituals and ceremonies because it represented purity and rebirth for warriors who fell in battle. But it was also used to make dyes and as a medicine to treat skin problems, muscle inflammations and respiratory diseases, it was even given to breastfeeding women to increase the production of breastmilk.
It is believed that it was the Franciscan monks who during the colonial era noticed that the plant bloomed when Christmas came, that is why they chose it as a symbol of these dates, adorned the Catholic churches with it and changed its name: it stopped being ‘Cuetlaxóchitl’ to become ‘Nochebuena’ or ‘Estrella de Navidad’, as it is also known.
Years later, during 1820s decade, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, found in Taxco, Guerrero, a field full of poinsettias, he was so impressed by the beauty of the flower that he took several to his country and dedicated himself to producing them under the name ‘Poinsettia’. This is how poinsettia arrived in the United States, however, their mexican origin was not recognized and everybody thought that the ‘Nochebuena’ were native to the United States.
He also explains that due to the Mexican migrants in the United States the fame of this flower has grown in that country. “One of the things you feel when you are not in your homeland is the need to have your flavors, your food and congregate with people who have the same codes, and for many their code is the poinsettia.”
Currently Mexico ranks fourth worldwide in cultivated area of poinsettias: there are 248 hectares throughout the country, produced mainly in greenhouses such as those found in the Caltongo neighborhood in Xochimilco, a place surrounded by a system of water canals that are used to plant vegetables and for tourist trips, where about 20.000 poinsettias are sown every year.
Martha Patricia Gómez is a flower grower from that neighborhood. She works in the San Marcos greenhouse and since she was a child she learned the art of producing poinsettias. “These plants, that you see give life, it makes me feel satisfied knowing that I am giving life to a new being because plants are living beings. Being a flower grower for me is a pride since it is a tradition that comes from my grandparents and my parents and now it is our turn. I hope that in the future my sons will also continue working on this beautiful work.”
In Mexico, poinsettias generate approximately 15 thousand jobs and leave an economic spill of 700 million pesos a year. That is why a big part of the economy of Xochimilco —whose name means ‘Field of Flowers’— is based on floriculture.
But something that many people do not know is that poinsettias have a great variety of colors in addition to the red that characterizes them. In the greenhouses of the area we can find pink, orange and yellow poinsettias, this due to the pigmentation process used by flower growers.
Poinsettias are a Mexican pride. These plants, which have been planted since March in different greenhouses and sold at the end of the year in the city’s markets, have beautified hundreds of streets and thousands of homes around the world. More and more people admire its elegant coloring. And people like Martha Patricia who work daily to make sure her plants are perfect make the world a little more beautiful.
The poinsettia is the Christmas gift that Mexico gave to the world.