Monday, December 15, 2008

'Tis the Season

"From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me -
The woodspurge has a cup of three."
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Woodspurge"

The scientific name for this plant is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in the Spurge family, "very beautiful"). Imperialistically controlling the discourse, the common name we use today for this six-foot tall native Mexican plant with bright red bracts is Poinsettia. The name is taken from early US Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett who “discovered” the plant in Mexican churches circa 1825, and first brought it back to the US.

Famously amnesiac about our historical misbehavior in this hemisphere if not on this globe, Americans simply ignored the Aztec name for these plants (Cuetlaxochitl) and so do you. Further south, in Chile and Peru, the plant was called the “Crown of the Andes”. Later, Mexicans called this plant Buena Noche because it flowers at Christmas.

By whatever name they’re called, they grow locally. Except for this picture of the Ecke Ranch, the other poinsettia pictures were taken in my neighborhood of El Cajon, CA. Eighty to ninety percent of all poinsettias in the world were born on the Paul Ecke Ranch, in Encinitas, CA, a relative stone's throw from where I live.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how plants can communicate – more specifically – how, like any form of communication, plants are apt to be misunderstood.

Let’s try to translate what Poinsettias are telling us. First, let’s take the Victorian conceit of the Language of Flowers (LOF). Because this New World native wasn’t known to your everyday Victorian, those fluent in the LOF were probably clueless about this plant’s meaning. (Remember that - should you travel back in time with some potted poinsettias to distribute, and OBTW, don’t shoot your grandfather while you're back there.)

Then, take the Doctrine of Signatures which holds that God isn't much of a kidder - especially after that other plant misunderstanding; the one about where not to eat apples. Knowing man would be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, early European practitioners of Christian metaphysics posited that God would tell us how a particular plant could help us based on its “signature” or sign of nature. I’m not sure what point of a poinsettia would mean under this interpretation, and neither is Google.

So here’s my guess. How about red relating to the pulsing heart, and pointy red leaves that encircle the diminutive flowers in the middle representing a bloody crown of thorns, or knife blades dipped in blood, neither of which is your typical cheerful seasonal message of peace and love. But my favorite fun fact about this plant is that by any other name, it can still kill you, which is a pretty hard message to misunderstand.

As a gardener, I tend to go for the Peace on Earth seasonal message. Whatever it means to you, I greet you seasonally.


walk2write said...

Surely that poinsettia (sorry, I can't remember how to spell the Aztec name) must not be toxic to other plants, just to humans, for whatever reason. The Betula planted near it seems to be enjoying its proximity. I'm not sure I could bear to shoot my grandfather. He had to endure a spell in Siberia.

Matron said...

Really interesting about the pointsettias. We get insipid looking weeds passing for sale in the shops this time of year. I have just come back from a visit to the Island of Madeira. I have seen those huge plants over 15feet tall. Spectacular.

tina said...

Very well said about the poinsettia-just what do plants tell us? I knew the poinsettias got very big out in your area and Mexico, they are just so cool!

greeny said...

I understand now why we don't use the Aztec name, don't you?
I have sliced, hormone-dipped, planted, drip irrigated, repotted, sprayed, pampered, foil-wrapped and bowed, and delivered enough poinsettias to last three lifetimes but I never realized where our stock plants originated.

I prefer the old fashioned red variety with the huge blooms. Nope, I don't remember the varietal name.
I'm glad someone does the deep thinking around her.

greeny said...


TC said...

Hmmm, I'm getting conflicting evidence regarding the poinsettia being poisonous or not. I've discovered research that says you'd have to eat loads of bracts to even get a belly ache. I'm not sure about ingesting the sap though. I have found topics that say the sap can cause irritation to sensitive skin. Perhaps my skin isn't sensitive because the sap don't bother me. If you read my post about the poinsettia (, you'll see a big difference in our reports.

Do you think we should get together and try to discover why there's a discrepancy? I sure don't want my readers, both on my blog and in my weekly newspaper column, to be getting false information.

Wayne Stratz said...

I too have heard mixed messages about eating poinsettias. I have been believing that it is a myth that they are toxic. I always get questions from those who own cats. First off, one should avoid eating plants in pots unless you know what it is.

I am trying to get my students to understand that plants are more complicated and communication would be part of that.