(CNN Spanish) — The intense red of the poinsettia flower invades corners of the whole world at Christmas. This flower, which grows in Mexico, has become the universal symbol of the December holidays, but its origin, according to researchers, is much more complex than is known.
Its worldwide popularity as a Christmas flower came after a botanist and U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, sent the poinsettia seeds to a laboratory in Philadelphia where they were grown, according to a report. study carried out by the researcher of the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Laura Trejo and other biologists, published in the American Journal of Botany in 2012.
Since then, Christmas Eve has been sold during the holidays with great success in various countries, especially in the United States, where in 2020 sales reached US$157 million, according to data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) of that country.
In Mexico, flower growers from Morelos, Puebla, Michoacán and Mexico City prepare their land for the planting of poinsettia stems from the month of May, since the crop takes about six months, in order to have them ready for sale in the middle of November and early December, when the Christmas sales begin.
In 2021, Christmas Eve production in the country closed with just over 17 million plants, which was equivalent to more than 660 million Mexican pesos (about US$33 million) and a total area of 257 hectares was planted, according to data from the Agro-Food and Fisheries Information Service (SIAP). Such is the success of this flower that they often call it “Mexico’s gift to the world.”
But its origin, Trejo explains in an interview with CNN, is much more complex to trace as it is a plant that grows from the state of Sinaloa, in northern Mexico, to Guatemala.
Christmas Eve, “Mexico’s gift to the world”
Poinsettia flower, poinsettia, Easter flower or shepherdess: there are different names for this plant, but the Aztecs called it cuetlaxóchitl, which in Nahuatl means “withering flower”. The native peoples used it above all to treat some skin conditions and its ornamental importance occurred with the arrival of the Spanish who used it in religious celebrations at the end of the year, since it only blooms in December and January.
Years later, in 1827, Poinsett went on an excursion to Taxco — a town in Guerrero, a state located in southwestern Mexico — with other botanists and they collected the seeds of the poinsettia flower that that same year he sent to the Bartram Botanical Garden in Philadelphia. , where they were cultivated and exhibited to the public in June 1829.
Trejo and the other UNAM biologists verified through genetic studies that “the source of germplasm that gives rise to these commercial cultivars in the United States comes from northern Guerrero,” explains the researcher.
However, for Trejo it is important to “be more precise” regarding the origin of the poinsettia, since it has not yet been possible to determine which wild populations are ancestral to the cultivated varieties throughout the world.
Poinsettia grows wild along the tropical Pacific slope in mid-elevation dry forests from northwestern Mexico to southern Guatemala over a range of about 2,000 km, the research says.
“The original germplasm could possibly have come from any population across the vast range of poinsettia,” he explains, adding that they continue to study and track wild poinsettia populations.
“We are about to verify if populations that go beyond Central America, including those that reach Costa Rica, are also wild populations. Which tells us that this whole part is where there are wild poinsettias. It is not exclusively Mexico, although historically it has been mentioned Mexico. But if you go to Guatemala they will tell you that they are from Guatemala, (and) in Nicaragua that they are from Nicaragua.”
There are currently many varieties of poinsettia, but those that are traditionally sold in pots in Mexico and other countries, red and white, are genetic varieties of the Euphorbia pulcherrima. Poinsettias introduced to the United States and the rest of the world have been modified by local management, genetic improvement, and biotechnology, which has given rise to more than 300 cultivars.