Mortal Flower That Perishes Like All That Is Pure

One of life’s great small pleasures is the glory that emerges from translating proper native names into other languages. Sometimes we garner a euphonious moniker with a plain strict translation. For example, Katahdin is a musical name that means “Great Mountain.” While Maine’s High Point certainty is a great mountain, Katahdin rolls off the tongue with more merit. Conversely, sometimes we end up with a wonderful translation that reads more like a line from a Middle Ages saga than an uncomplicated descriptor.

The title of today’s article is one translation of the Nahuatl word cuetlaxōchitl: “mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.” A lot of subtext swirls in that statement. Pronounced kwet-la-sho-she, this Aztec word has a litany of other renderings and names. Other translations to English include “withering flower,” “brilliant flower,” and “ember flower.”  More modern nomenclatures include “Mexican flame flower” and “painted leaf.” The scientific name of this entity is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “the most beautiful euphorbia.

Not too helpful if you don’t know what euphorbias are. These things are commonly known as spurges. Unless you’re a botanist, not too beneficial, either. Perhaps if we jump to the modern Mexican term, you’ll recognize today’s spotlight: flor de nochebuena. Translated from Spanish, Nochabuena is “The Good Night,” which refers specifically to Christmas Eve.

The flower of Christmas Eve:

Euphorbia pulcherrima - photo by André Karwath

The mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure is better known today as the poinsettia!

How did we end up with this name after all the other fantastic incarnations? Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first US Minister to Mexico, who also happened to be a botanist. He encountered the red flowers and began sending them back to greenhouses he kept in South Carolina. Somewhere along the way, his name took over in general parlance. In modern eras, movements to move away from poinsettia have gathered steam, as Poinsett features a rather troubling past. Not only did he own slaves and support the continuance of the slaving system, he served as Secretary of War between 1837 and 1841. During his tenure, he oversaw the Trail of Tears and the Seminole War, in addition to forcibly removing Native Americans west of the Mississippi.

Joel Roberts Poinsett - portrait by Charles Fenderich

Euphorbia pulcherrima, though known as a flower, is a shrub. Most people encounter them in pots, but the plants in the wild can reach heights of over 13 feet! Dark green leaves surround not petals but flaming red bracts, which are another type of leaf. The green leaves are responsible for photosynthesis, while the red leaves take care of reproduction. Though we are most familiar with the crimson varieties, humans have created differently colored cultivars. One could buy orange, cream, pale green, pink, white, or marbled mortal flowers that perish like all that is pure.

The shrubs became associated with Christmas in 16th-century Mexico. According to legend, a girl named Pepita or María wanted to give a holiday gift to the nearby nativity but lacked the money to do so. An angel urged her to gather weeds and place them in front of the altar at her local church. From the weeds sprung cardinal flowers, morphing into las flores de nochebuena. From there, Franciscans began utilizing them in Christmas celebrations. The tradition spread across the globe.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poinsettias are the best-selling potted plant. Around 80 million shrubs are sold each year. Staggeringly, 70 million of those sales occur during six weeks around the holidays. Though the connection with Christmas is centuries old, the economic success of this plant can be traced largely to one family. Albert Ecke began a ranch in California in the early 1900s, in which they grew poinsettias. Over the subsequent decades, the Eckes unleashed a savvy campaign to boost the status of the flowers, sending free cuttings to television stations across the country during the Christmas season. They materialized on The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials, which helped the flowers catch on with the public. Today, the Ecke ranch holds 70% of the U.S. market and half of the entire planet.

A tall poinsettia tree - photo by Downtowngal
A few of the cultivars of the plant

Despite its popularity around Christmas, one negative of the plant is its toxicity.

In 1919, a two-year-old perished after ingesting poinsettia leaves, alerting the public to the threat of the plant.

The only problem with the preceding two sentences is they are myths! Poinsettias are, in reality, not poisonous to humans or animals. A child did not perish in 1919, but the urban legend did the damage and the tale has become “popular knowledge.” Numerous studies have shown the leaves will not kill living organisms. In one experiment, rats were fed a kilogram of poinsettia sap, the equivalent of eating 500 leaves; the rats remained unharmed. A survey of 20,000 calls to the Poison Control Centers between 1985 and 1992 related to ingesting poinsettia leaves produced zero fatalities. Just 3.4% of the calls reported any minor effects. The myth might stem from the inedibility of the plant and its bitter taste. Ingesting the leaves can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, but will not kill a human or a pet. Of course, they can cause contact issues on the skin or eyes, but those of us allergic to plants can attest that poinsettias are hardly unique in this attribute. Don’t rub the leaves on your eyes.

So, the next time you get the itch to adorn your abode with Christmas Eve flowers but worry about your cats, dogs, or children, feel free to purchase the festive plants!

Though the name poinsettia certainly isn’t boring, we join the chorus of discerning humans who agree we should move toward a new name. This plant has a slew of wonderful options. I vote for “mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure” and I’ll start to use the full name every time I see them. However, I know I’m likely in the minority on this issue, as many people do not want to take the time to employ 13 syllables in conversation for one name. Mexican flame flower and ember flower are far more radical than poinsettia. Or, if the spirit moves you, the Christmas Eve flower is a better name, too.

Further Reading and Exploration

Poinsettias – Penn State University

A Poinsettia By Any Other Name – University of Dayton

The Indigenous History of the Cuetlaxochitl— AKA the Poinsettia – Family Handyman


Poinsettias – Flowers Ireland

Are Poinsettia Plants Poisonous? – Snopes

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