The Indigenous History of the Cuetlaxochitl— AKA the Poinsettia

Updated: Jan. 16, 2023

Poinsettia's roots go deeper than the plant's Christmas status. Learn more, including why people are returning to its original name, Cuetlaxochitl.

The poinsettia is considered a Christmas plant worldwide, but its origins are actually rooted deeply in Indigenous Mexica culture and medicine.

Originally known as cuetlaxochitl, the plant eventually found its way into modern holiday culture. Now it’s distributed at supermarkets worldwide. But there’s a good case to be made for returning to its original name. Read on to learn more.

What Is Cuetlaxochitl?

La Cuetlaxochitl is the Mexican name for what we call poinsettias today. It translates to “flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.” Or, in short, “withering flower.” Other meanings translate to brilliant flower or ember flower.

The botanical name of the plant is Euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning “the most beautiful euphorbia.” In the wild, it often grows up to eight feet tall.

The History of Cuetlaxochitl

La Cuetlaxochitl was originally sacred to the Nahuati-speaking and Aztec cultures, and it’s still used in decorative and medicinal ways today among the Teenek Indians in southeastern Mexico. It holds seasonal religious significance as well because it blooms during the winter solstice, the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war.

“The Aztecs found many uses for the plant,” horticulture educator Jennifer Fishburn wrote in an article for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Extension program.

“The cuetlaxochitl was a symbol of the new life earned by warriors who died in battle. They also used the plant’s red bracts to make a reddish-purple dye used in textiles and cosmetics. They crushed and applied the plant to skin infections, or placed plant parts on a person’s chest to stimulate circulation.”

In the 16th century, Spanish Franciscan friars began using it in nativity processions, calling it la flor de la nochebuena, or Flower of the Holy Night. Many new legends began around the plant and Indigenous celebrations gave way to Christmas, but the plant’s seasonal significance remained.

How To Say “Cuetlaxochitl”

Cuetlaxochitl is pronounced, roughly, kwet-la-sho-she. Pronunciation sites provide variations.

Why Do We Call Cuetlaxochitl “Poinsettia”?

That’s because of Joel Poinsett, a plantation slave owner and amateur botanist.

According to Ace Collins in his book Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Poinsett served as the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He first saw this beautiful red plant as a church decoration at a Christmas Eve service in Mexico in 1824.

Struck by its beauty, Poinsett had its seeds shipped back to his plantation in South Carolina. There, he grew them in greenhouses and presented the plants as Christmas gifts to local Charleston, S.C. churches.

One of the recipients was a famous botanist and explorer, who passed it on to a nursery owner, who soon sold the plants under their botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. Somewhere along this line, its handlers began calling it a poinsettia, after the ambassador who kicked off its global journey.

By the 1860s, the plant was widely grown and associated with Christmas throughout the U.S.. Today, poinsettias are a popular Christmas flower around the world.

A Case for Calling It Cuetlaxochitl

In the spirit of acknowledging the sordid history of colonialism on Indigenous cultures, a growing number of people feel it’s time to call the poinsettia by its original name. In a recent essay, Grace Alvarez Sesma, a cultural practitioner, presents the case for this.

Historical accounts paint Poinsett as a white-supremacist nationalist who, while serving as U.S. Secretary of War, forcibly removed Indigenous communities from their lands and committed other atrocities. He believed Mexicans needed white people to govern them, and frequently shared his racist views publicly.

Today, many feel that calling our celebrated holiday plant La Cuetlaxochitl is one way to honor those who originally cultivated it while embracing the true Christmas spirit of love, harmony and tolerance.