"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.