Poinsettia Party - The Fascinating History of an Iconic Plant

Tis the season to be jolly, and what better way to deck the halls than with the iconic poinsettia? It's that burst of red that says, "Hello, December! I'm here to sleigh!" (I'm so sorry - I couldn't help myself.) But Poinsettias are more than just a pretty face - they have a fascinating geo-political history, have been the target of many unfounded rumors, and are generally much more interesting than many people think. 

(Photograph of one of our glitter poinsettias taken by our customer @gratefulgnomes)

Toxic Rumours

Let's clear the air quickly, once and for all: Poinsettias are NOT highly toxic. They will not kill your cat or dog. They may, however, cause mild indigestion or vomiting if a signficant amount of the plant is ingested... much like many other popular houseplants would.  But don't take my word for it! The ASPCA has written extensively on this issue.


Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America, and the ancient Aztecs held deep cultural significance for the striking plant. They believed its fiery red hue symbolized purity and served as a reminder of the blood sacrificed to the gods. The sap of the ponisettia was also used medicinally, mostly by nursing women. 

Fast forward to the 1820s, and enter Joel Poinsett, a charismatic U.S. ambassador with a penchant for plants. While strolling through Mexico during the winter holiday season, he "discovered" the vibrant Cuetlaxochitl and decided that it needed to be a thing in the US as well. He spent the next few years learning how to grow and produce them, and teaching others to do the same.  (You can think of Poinsett as the first plant-fluencer in the United States) And just like that, the poinsettia found its way into the hearts of Christmas enthusiasts worldwide!

An important note: While the plant became named for the man who made it popular in the states, there is a newer movement to use the plant's pre-colonial moniker "Cuetlaxochitl" ((pronounced kwe-tla-so-cheetl).  This movement seeks to reclaim and celebrate the plant's proud and ancient pre-Colombian heritage.  However you choose to refer to the plant, the poinsettia's dual identity showcases its multicultural roots, and fascinating history as a cultural export.

(Photograph of one of our classic poinsettias for sale in our retail shop in SF)

An Economic Powerhouse

According to its Wikipedia page (which is well worth a visit in your spare time), the poinsettia is the world's most economically important potted plant.  Each year in the US, approximately 70 million poinsettias are sold in a period of six weeks, at a value of US $250 million. 

Perhaps due to their ubiquity, when we first started selling poinsettias, a few of our followers expressed surprised that we were taking time to promote these "basic, cheap" plants. We are a rare plant shop, after all! Perhaps this response shouldn't have surprised us. Corporate giants like Walmart and Home Depot, in their pursuit of holiday bargains, flood the market with (unhealthy, stressed out) poinsettias at prices that barely cover production costs. In doing so they have turned this plant into a veritable cliche. This commoditization has led to a perception of poinsettias as a cheap and disposable decoration.  

For this reason we feel extra committed to defending and celebrating the poinsettia.  We insist on sourcing our plants from local growers who  understand the precise conditions and attention to detail it takes to bring out their their vibrant hues year after year. We also hand pick every plant that we bring in and check them for health and quality, and keep them in warm, well-lighted conditions in our shop. For this reason you can expect to enjoy the colorful bracts of our poinsettias for months and months after your neighbors' may have faded! (And if you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant and rebloom it next year - you absolutely can. We've done it many times. But that's a blog post for another time.)

In conclusion: Do not sleep on this Christmas Classic - she's iconic for a reason.  Come see the beautiful varieties available at the shop and select the perfect one (or three!) for yourself this season! 

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