Long thought of as the official Christmas flower, the poinsettia is actually native to Mexico and grows in warm, tropical climates — quite ironic considering we always associate it with winter.
The poinsettia was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, an amateur botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico. He found the flower growing in the wild in southern Mexico, in an area called Taxco del Alarcon, and brought some cuttings back to his plantation in Greenwood, South Carolina.
While the plant wasn't immediately embraced, it caught on over the years and became a holiday mainstay in the 20th century, even so far as inspiring National Poinsettia Day on December 12 (the date of Poinsett's death), which honors both the man who brought it to America and the plant that bears his namesake.
But the poinsettia wasn't always called so — it was known to native Mexicans as Flor de Noche Buena, or Flower of the Holy Night. The story goes that long ago, people flocked to the church on Christmas Eve to fill the Christ child's manger with flowers. One little girl was too poor to buy flowers, so an angel told her to simply pick some weeds from the roadside and bring them back to the church. When the girl humbly placed the weeds in the manger, they suddenly blossomed into brilliant scarlet flowers: a true Christmas miracle.
The striking plant caught the attention of Poinsett, who raised it in his greenhouses. Initially, it was called painted leaf or Mexican fire leaf in the United States. Though many people mistakenly call it a flower, the real flowers are the small, unassuming yellow buds that appear in the center of the plant. By 1837 it was renamed poinsettia pulcherrima, or poinsettia, after the man who "discovered" it.
While most people picture poinsettias to be a deep crimson color, they also come in white, pink, and dappled varieties. By the early 1900s, poinsettias were sold as potted plants in California, especially for use as Christmas decorations. They are still grown here as a commercial crop, and in fact the city of Ventura, once one of the largest producers, is known as "Poinsettia City by the Sea" (despite having only a few poinsettia growers remaining).
This time of year, locally grown poinsettias can be found at farmers' markets all over Southern California. Find one near you with LA Weekly's ultimate farmers' market guide, which comes with a color-coded map.