Mexican Transplant Contributes to USA's Holiday Spirit

How the cuetlaxochitl, a native plant of Mexico and Central America, became the nation's Christmas flower

By Jim Estrada
Published on LatinoLA: December 12, 2010

Mexican Transplant Contributes to USA's Holiday Spirit

Each year, the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving Day and runs through New Year's Day is a time for celebrating our blessings, demonstrating love and compassion, and hoping for peace on earth.

The end of the year is also a time for reflection. This year, immigration has captured center stage in the minds of many across our nation. There are those who cite the growing negative influence Latinos are having on "their" society, "their" economy and "their" culture. This prompted me to remind my fellow Americans of Latino contributions to our nation's growth, progress and cultural evolution.

It occurred to me we have imported many things from Latin America throughout the history of this young nation. One of them has become symbolic of the holiday season we are preparing to celebrate: the cuetlaxochitl. It is a native plant of Mexico and Central America. To many, it is seen only in its dispensable potted state, but in its natural environment it normally grows up to 10 feet tall.

This icon of the holiday season was once part of the botanical gardens that existed throughout the pre-Colombian Aztec empire. In that era, flowers and plants were cultivated for their beauty, as well as medicinal purposes. The Mexicas (whose culture was adopted by most of the tribes of the Aztec civilization) used the cuetlaxochitl to cure fevers and to dye clothing and artifacts. Most Mexicans know the plant as la flor de la nochebuena (flower of the Holy Night), since it leaves turn into a flame-red color only during the Christmas season.

In the United States, this Mexican transplant has a different name. Here, its history began with Joel Robert Poinsett, who was Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. He reportedly visited a rural church while in Mexico where the parishioners had adorned the Nativity scene with local, exotic red plants that gave it a very elegant and uncommon appearance. Ambassador Poinsett took cuttings from these plants across the border to his South Carolina hothouses and introduced the nochebuena to the USA. Today, it is the nation's Christmas flower.

The nochebuena is still associated with Christmas throughout Mexico, Central America and Latino neighborhoods across the United States. Who could have imagined that a shrubby, rather obscure tropical plant with reddish leaves (that really aren't flowers) would someday become the second-most-popular flowering plant sold in the United States of America?

Poinsettias (as they have come to be known in English), along with chocolate, corn, avocados, peanuts, tomatoes, chile peppers and many other indigenous goods from South of the border, have been readily accepted as enrichment to the quality of life in the USA.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ this season, let us ponder why is it so difficult for so many people in the USA (whose ancestors also immigrated here for a better life) to allow those who cultivated these indigenous plants and foods the same benefits they and their ancestors enjoyed?

About Jim Estrada:
Jim Estrada is author The ABCs & ?? of America's Cultural Evolution
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