Chances are that by now you have one or more cuetlaxochitl somewhere in your home. You may not recognize the name, but they have recently spread across Napa. Don’t call an exterminator yet, however.
Cuetlaxochitl, more commonly known as poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), are the popular red-leafed plants used as decoration around the holidays. The story of the poinsettia is an interesting one.
Native to Central America, these plants were originally used by the Aztecs to create red dye as a medicine to reduce fevers. Their association with the holiday season goes as far back as the 16th century, when Spanish monks integrated them into their Christmas traditions.
They were first brought to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1820s. Poinsett was the first ambassador to Mexico, a congressman and co-founder of what we now know as the Smithsonian Institution. Botany was always a subject to his heart, and he could not resist the plant’s bright red foliage.
Poinsettias did not become the ubiquitous holiday decorations they are today until nursery owner Paul Ecke, Jr., made a concerted effort to popularize them in the 1920s. The Ecke family discovered a poinsettia-growing technique that allowed for the development of the full, bushy plants we have today.
Ecke developed shipping and distribution methods that allowed him to spread his plants across the country in good condition. He also sent samples of his plants to television shows for holiday specials, obtaining free advertising as well as cementing the poinsettia’s association with the holidays. The Ecke family kept their growing method a secret until 1991, when it was independently rediscovered and shared with other nurseries.
Other tropical plants that have become holiday favorites are those of the genus Schlumbergera, holiday cacti. Native to Brazil, where they are often referred to as “Flor de Mayo” (May flower), these cacti are different from others. Instead of preferring sunny, arid conditions, these plants thrive in shady, humid environments. They are also epiphytic (growing on trees) or lithophytic (growing on rocks).
Most species have flattened, segmented stems that are often mistaken for leaves. The stems have actually evolved to function similarly to leaves, performing the necessary photosynthesis for the plant. You may have heard some of these plants referred to as “Christmas cactus;” you may not have known that there is also a “Thanksgiving cactus.” The former is identified by thorny points along its stem segments, while the latter has smooth, rounded segments.
Holiday cacti were first introduced to England in the early 1800s by botanist and explorer Allen Cunningham. He “discovered” the plants while on an expedition to Brazil for the Royal Horticultural Society. They were quickly adopted into Christmas traditions almost entirely because their bloom time coincides with the holiday. Their immense popularity resulted in the development of large amount of cultivars, most of which have since been lost.
Mistletoe (Viscum album), another holiday decorative staple, has a much longer association with the holidays. As the plant blooms in the winter, the Druids saw it as symbolizing the vigor of life, often using it to bring luck to ward off evil. Norse mythology, depending on the tale, uses mistletoe as a symbol to remember that which was forgotten, or as an emblem of love and friendship.
Sometime in the 18th century, mistletoe became part of Christmas traditions in England. People adorned doorways with mistletoe, with the custom of allowing those beneath to “steal a kiss.” Each time a kiss occurred, a berry was to be plucked from the mistletoe; when the berries were gone, the kissing was to cease.
Interestingly, Viscum album is a primarily parasitic plant. It performs very little photosynthesis on its own, but instead grows roots in an unsuspecting host plant. These roots draw nutrients from the circulatory system of the host, providing the mistletoe with all it needs to survive.
While mistletoe has some medicinal uses, it can also be toxic, causing heart rate changes and gastrointestinal problems. The association of a parasitic, potentially toxic plant with the concepts of love and friendship is an ironic one indeed. It is, at least, a useful conversation item should you need to dodge an undesired pair of lips this holiday season.
Workshop: U.C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will lead a free workshop on “Herb Bundles from Your Garden” on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 7-8 p.m., at the Napa County Library. Learn about herbs in your garden that you might use to make an herb bundle for cooking, known as a bouquet garni. Master Gardeners will talk about which plants are used for seasoning different kinds of food and how to bundle them. Attendees will make their own bouquet garni to take home. No reservation required.