The festive season is full of traditions, from the drinks you serve mid-morning to the time you eat your turkey. Another Christmas tradition is the kind of plant that adorns mantelpieces and windowsills – for many, it’s simply not Christmas until a poinsettia has taken pride of pride of place.
But how did this plant become so associated with this time of year? It all started hundreds of years ago, and thousands of miles away.
Christmas in Mexico is quite different to Christmas in the North East of England – for one thing, the celebration stretches from 12 December to 6 January, with children performing in vast processions, called posadas, in the middle of the celebrations. But one thing is constant between the dusty plains of Taxco del Alarcon and the doorsteps of the North East come Christmas: the deep red plants that are found in homes in both countries.
Called ‘cuetlaxochitl’ in ancient Aztec, flores de noche buena by Mexicans, and poinsettias by Brits, the plant has been inexorably linked with Christmas for centuries. It all stems back to an old Mexican legend. There was once a poor girl called Pepita who had no present to give to the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve service. She was glum about not having anything to give, until her cousin, Pedro, told her that even the smallest gift would be enough, provided it was given with love.
Heartened by the advice, Pepita scrabbled around on the roadside, pulling together a handful of weeds into a makeshift bouquet. Though ramshackle and rough, Pepita remembered Pedro’s words and realised that the gift, given with love, would be enough. Laying the bouquet of weeds down on the altar at the Christmas Eve service, something magical happened: the weeds burst into colour, growing great red flowers. It was a Christmas miracle, and so they gained their Mexican name meaning ‘flowers of the holy night’.
Since then – and thanks in part to Joel Roberts Poinsett, once the American ambassador to Mexico, who brought home a selection of the plants to grow at home in the United States – they have become intrinsically associated with the festive season. Yet for those who grow them – including Stephen Heslop, Head Gardener at the Houghall Plant Centre at East Durham College – Christmas preparations start much earlier.
Stephen received the first of 700 plants in the college’s poinsettia house, which is 22 feet wide and 44 feet long, at the start of August. ‘The earlier you get them in, the better,’ he says.
That’s because in order to grow fully, the plants need long, bright days of the kind that you get at the height of summer, but don’t get nearer Christmastime – not in Durham, anyway. ‘To get them to grow vegetatively, and to put the green growth on, you need long days,’ he explains.
Once the plant has bulked up, some of the leaves then begin to change colour to the deep red that distinguishes poinsettias as unique. Stephen’s method of growing – low temperatures and slow growth – is in contrast to the quicker method of growth that typifies many of the supermarket poinsettias, which come from Holland where they’re grown in hothouses.
‘I grow mine at low temperatures so they have thicker stems and are a stronger and sturdier plant,’ he says. It’s also important to keep them in fairly dry conditions, a nod to their past on the dry, dusty Mexican plains.
‘Poinsettias don’t like being in the dark or wet,’ he says. ‘They prefer to be on the drier side.’ In short, make sure you have the heating turned up to ensure your poinsettia last as long as the chocolates in your advent calendar without wilting and losing their colour.
So as you celebrate the countdown to Christmas with a bright brace of poinsettias on your table next to the cheeseboard and the tin of special Christmas biscuits, remember the remarkable history of this most traditional of plants. But most of all, have a very merry Christmas.
We Wish You A Different Christmas
Sick of the sight of poinsettia? You’re not the only one. ‘The thing with poinsettias is they’re old fashioned,’ says Stephen. Try these better alternatives
Still want the same dash of colour but something a little more out of the ordinary? Shun the poinsettia and pick up an amaryllis. They’ve still got the same large flower heads and the added bonus of coming in a range of festive colours.
2. GUZMANIA LINGULATA
Also known as the bromeliad scarlet star, the guzmania lingulata has an enormous starburst flower head that’s sure to draw anyone’s attention. Beware, however, if you have a busy Christmas ahead: they needs lots of care and attention.
This indoor orchid is among the most popular flowers in Britain. Don’t be put off by its common name, moth orchid: the pearlescent flower heads can be as white as freshly-driven snow, and as vibrant as Christmas tree lights.
Whether you go for the bigger, bolder-headed plants or the smaller-flowered varieties such as cyclamen persicum, the bright, intense colours of these flowers will keep the festive spirit alive long after the wrapping paper is recycled.
All Present and Correct
Visitors to the Houghall Plant Centre are seeking more contemporary options, says Stephen. Here’s just a handful of the trends he’s seen
Why stick with one plant or flower when you can mix and match? Planted baskets and bowls with mixed foliage are all the rage, says Stephen.
STONE ORNAMENTS AND WATERFALLS
Plants aren’t difficult to maintain, but some people are shunning them in favour of contemporary ornaments or soothing indoor waterfalls to calm Christmas lunch preparation tensions.
GLASS LED DOMES
Like a more modern version of snow globes, Stephen has seen plenty of people opt to buy glass domes fitted with LED lights inside. They twinkle and shine like the Christmas decs of yesteryear, but are distinctly modern.
A Cactus For Christmas?
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it: here are five festive succulents (golden rings optional)
Also known as the desert rose, this pretty evergreen succulent shrub thrives on the warmth emanating from a radiator or open fire at this time of year.
This is commonly called the copper pinwheel, and when you see it you’ll understand why. These woody-stalked plants sometimes climb up to 20 inches tall, adding drama to a room.
The deep maroon stripes on this succulent, which looks like an exploded firework stuck in time, are so clean they look almost painted on – but it’s just a wonder of nature.
Full of festive colour, this green-leaved wonder has bright red fringes that evoke the best bits of Christmas. Make sure you’re not watering it over winter, though.
Succulents aren’t for Christmas, you say? Why is the common name for this marvel the Christmas cactus, then? During most months the tentacles remain bare, but come Christmas they grow delightful red and pink flowers on their tips.