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Nochebuenas: Mexico’s Christmas gift is a bright red plant

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Veronica Garibay
Veronica Garibayhttp://yucatanmagazine.com
Verónica Garibay Saldaña is a Mexican columnist, communications major, and poetry enthusiast. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Nochebuenas, otherwise known as poinsettias, are the iconic Christmas season plant. Although they are only marketed six weeks of the year, often from the first week of November to around Dec. 15, they are the most widely sold potted plant in the world.

And, a fact widely ignored outside the country, they are actually native to southeastern Mexico. 

Nochebuenas, or poinsettias, have over 30 varieties of colors and textures. Photo: Courtesy

They grow wild along the Pacific coast from southern Sinaloa to the neighboring country of Guatemala, as well as from central Guerrero to southern Morelos. Mexico is the only country in the world where Nochebuenas grow wild.

They are known in other countries as Easter flower, shepherdess, crown of the Inca, federal star, and poinsettia.

Nochebuenas are particularly recognizable by their dark green and intense red of their geometric leaves (although there are varieties with white, pink, or yellowish leaves) which are often mistaken for flowers. In reality, their flowers are the tiny yellow buds in the central part of the plant. There are more than 100 different varieties and their traditional use dates back to Aztec origins.

A greenhouse poinsettia for sale in the United States. (The Sentinel-Record / Mara Kuhn)

The Maya knew this plant as cuetlaxóchitl, which could mean wilting flower or leather flower. It was used in rituals and ceremonies as a representation of purity, and as an offering for the rebirth of warriors. In addition, pre-Hispanic habitants used them as an offering to the God of the Sun. The Aztecs also used the Nochebuena to make reddish dyes and as a medicinal plant. 

In the Viceroyalty of New Spain, churches were adorned with this peculiar flower during Christmas celebrations.

Nowadays, some people use them, for example, to promote the production of breast milk in lactating women or to treat skin conditions such as mosquitoes, warts, or sores. Its leaves are roasted to treat inflammation and certain respiratory ailments.

Mexico produces more than 30 varieties of poinsettias. The most common are called Freedom, Subdiji, and Prestige Red — the traditional variety which represents 70 percent of the production in Mexico’s City. Yet varieties like Joy Pink, White Red Angel, and Festival show in red, yellow, pink, white, striped, and marbled.

The red Nochebuena is by far the most popular, accounting for around 70% of the production in Mexico City.

Contrary to popular belief, the poinsettia is not a plant that only blooms at Christmas time. Being a native flower of Mexico it withstands both cold and warm temperatures. 

First, before you buy your nochebuena, make sure the plant has flowers and not just leaves, as they will last longer. They need to be in a well-lit space such as a window, but direct sunlight could harm it. 

In Yucatán Magazine: How to care for your plants during Yucatecan fall

Poinsettias do not need large amounts of watering. Every third day should be enough, only moistening the soil.

Make sure to choose a spot that is completely out of reach of your pets, as the ingestion of this plant can be fatal for cats and dogs.

Although they are mostly known as winter plants, they have the ability to adapt to warm and cold weather. Photo: Courtesy

If in late winter you notice that your poinsettia is almost dead, transplant it and give it a second chance. Take it out carefully and cut two-thirds of its stems and prune the dead stems. Change the soil and replant it, maintaining the usual care until October, a month in which you should keep your poinsettia in the shade for more than 10 hours a day so its green leaves turn red in time for Christmas.

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