In this educative and inspiring column, Girija Viraraghavan discusses, in detail, the flowers found in the wild and in the gardens of many homes in Kodaikanal. This series will feature a number of her articles, each describing a flowering species found in our hills. These pieces, edited and adapted for today, first appeared in The Friendly Post, a Kodai newsletter that was published from 2003 to 2011.
When December rolls around and the days and nights get colder, our thoughts are of cheerful events like Christmas and the New Year. Christmas always conjures up postcard scenes of snow, Christmas trees, mistletoe and poinsettia.
We have many poinsettia plants in Kodai, and when they are in full bloom they make a very striking scene. You would have seen the bright red of the leaves, which look like flowers, in the houses near the Telephone Exchange, cheerfully peeping over the walls. Actually in Kodaikanal they are in beautiful colour for nearly all the year, but are especially resplendent in winter. In other areas and countries they are in colour only in the colder months.
Known also as the Christmas star or Christmas flower, the poinsettia’s association with Christmas is said to have come from a Mexican legend of the 16th century. The story goes that a child, with no means for a grander gift, gathered humble weeds from the side of a road to place at the church altar on Christmas Eve. As the congregation gathered at the church on Christmas morning, they witnessed a miracle, for the weeds had turned into brilliant red and green ‘flowers’. From the 17th century the Franciscan friars in Mexico included these plants in their Christmas decorations.
The poinsettia is also called the Mexican flame leaf, winter rose, noche buena (meaning Christmas Eve) and, surprisingly, in faraway Turkey, Ataturk’s flower, because it was a favourite of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
But the Aztecs of Mexico knew of this plant long ago, and in their language, Nahuatl, the plant is called cuetlaxochitl, meaning ‘skin flower’. The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication.
The name ‘poinsettia’ comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico. He was an amateur botanist and introduced the plant to the USA in 1825. The botanical name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima. It belongs to the plant family Euphorbiaceae. The name originates in the name given to the physician to King Juba of Mauretania: Euphorbia.
This genus of about 2000 species is widely distributed in temperate regions, showing immense diversity of form and requirements, and including annual, biennial and perennial herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees (both evergreen and deciduous) and succulent plants. In all euphorbia plants, the decorative parts are really bracts with a petal-like appearance, often colourful, and surrounding small, inconspicuous and insignificant flowers. All euphorbias exude a poisonous milky latex when the stems are cut, which can burn the skin and eyes, and in some species are terrible poisons.
The poinsettia is a densely leafy shrub having alternate leaves that are elliptical in outline and are bright green and shallowly lobed. The flowers are small, yellow and very insignificant. And they are sterile, meaning you cannot sow the seeds to get more plants. It is the leaves that make a splash of colour. Usually a deep carmine or brilliant scarlet, the leaves can be dark pink, light pink and even white. The plant can grow to a height of 5 feet or even more, with quite a spread widthwise, and can get reedy or lanky if not pruned regularly.
In the West this is a deciduous species and a very popular houseplant for Christmas decoration. In the USA, 12 December is celebrated as National Poinsettia Day.
Many new hybrids have been evolved. The ‘Ecke hybrids’ come in a range of red and pink shades, apart from white, and in double forms or bracts (while the flowers or bracts are single, there are some cases where the flowers/ bracts tend to be double in number). In the past decade or so, many dwarf varieties, starting from what are called the ‘Mikkelsen strains’, have become popular, as they are small and can be grown in pots, making for charming gifts at Christmas time. Unlike the original species, these hybrids are not very long lived.
Poinsettias symbolise good cheer and success, and are said to bring good wishes and add to the celebration of mirth, jollity and joyfulness that is the Christmas season.