Cuetlaxochitl : The Poinsettia

Also Known As: Flor de Noche Buena, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Christmas flower, Easter flower, Lobster flower, Mexican flame leaf, Mexican flame tree

Euphorbia pulcherrima : Euphorbia – late Middle English: from Latin euphorbea, named after Euphorbus, Greek physician to the reputed discoverer of the plant, Juba II of Mauretania (1st century BC) and pulcherrima – the “most beautiful” or “beautiful treasure”

The plant was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779 – 1851). This naming is problematic though. There are those that consider Poinsett to have been an incredibly racist “Indian hater” and the naming of the plant after him (after he essentially stole it from México) was a blatant theft of cultura Mexicana.


One author (Burciaga 1993) notes of Cuetlaxochitl “It represented purity, and its name signified “Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure”. The cuetlaxochitl was cultivated as an exotic gift from nature and admired but never touched. Its bright red colour had been given by the gods as a reminder of the periodic sacrificial offerings in accordance with the creation of the Fifth Sun. The intense red represented cuetlaxochitl, the precious liquid of the sacrifices offered to the gods.”

Aside from the description above, the name “cuetlaxochitl” is said to have more than one etymological source……

  • Cuetlaxóchitl means leather flower, although not precisely because of its use to pigment animal skin, but because its star-shaped leaves are as resistant as the aforementioned material. (1)
  • In Nahuatl , the language of the Aztecs, the Poinsettia was called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, for residue (3), and xochitl, for flower), meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” (2)
  1. Surya Palacios.
  2. Erica D. Seltzer and MaryAnne Spinner, University of Illinois.
  3. in Nahuatl “cuitlatl” translates as “excrement” or “faeces” so I think this definition (shit flower) is erroneous. According to mi diccionario Náhuatl (Herrera 2004) cuitlatl also translates as “abscess, tumour or growth” this may have a bearing on sources that say this plant was used to treat these very conditions (see Medicinal Uses below). There is some logic to this reasoning but it may be entirely faulty. I would not recommend this plant be used medicinally without first obtaining expert instruction.

Cuetlaxóchitl is also linguistically quite interesting. Surya’s definition of “leather flower” as noted above could be translated that way as “cuetla” is a prefix on a few “leather” related words…

  • cuetlaxhuahuanqui – tanner
  • cuetlaxtli – hide (as in an animal skin) also used to describe a dead persons skin (1)
  • cuetlaxtic – leathery, like leather. Has been used to describe the healing plant tetzmitic (tetzmitl), a medicinal plant used for curing swollen eyes (see Medicinal uses below)
  • cuetlaxicpalli – seat upholstered in leather
  • cuetlaxmecatl – leather strap
  • cuetlaxpoxahtli – loosely braided leather sandals
  • cuetlaxcactli – leather shoe…….

We must also take into consideration that the word “leather” is likely a Spanish import and generally refers to the hide of a cow which of course was not available prehispanically. We can however settle on the definition “a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process” without any particular issues.

Tetzmitl as depicted in the Badianus Manuscript (obviously not a poinsettia however)

….and Burciaga’s (1993) descriptive of “flower that withers” may relate to the words “cuetlahqui” (wither) and “cuetlahuic” (withered). I have no context for these words so I may be reaching (more than) a little.

Another “cuetla” prefix interestingly involves wriggling. One researcher (1) notes that it can also describe a wavering or wriggling motion. The word cuetlani (tremble) and cuetlaxcolli (earthworm) are indicative of this motion. How this relates to the plant I do not know (2). There is an edible insect called cuetla, but again, how that relates to the poinsettia I do not know.

  2. it may relate in the same way that papaloquilitl (butterfly quelite) is sometimes said to refer to the delicate motion of the leaves of this plant being compared to the gentle fluttering of a butterfly’s wings.
“Wriggling” Cuetla (butterfly larvae)
Photo by Yolcatzin Macrofotografía México via FaceBook
Guanajuato Mexico

It is found in the wild form, from the state of Sinaloa into the western parts of Mexico and in Guatemala, its origin was probably in the states of Guerrero and Morelos (Steinman & Porter 2002)

What are typically thought to be the red flowers of the poinsettia are in fact modified leaves called bracts, the flowers are the small yellow dots at the centre of these leaves.

Medicinal uses.

The leaves have been used to treat skin irritations and the crushed flowers to help heal conjunctivitis (1). The roots can be made into a paste to help ease stomach pain if used in small doses, if used in larger doses it will induce vomiting (2).

  1. (as was tetzmitl as noted earlier) It was not mentioned if an infusion of the flowers was used to wash the eyes or if the crushed flowers were applied topically as a poultice (I’m thinking poultice)
  2. Doses not mentioned. I would proceed cautiously.

In China, they harvest a Euphorbia varietal, E. pekinensis, in late winter or early spring. Charred poinsettia (E. pekinensis) is better at stopping bleeding while the fresh herb is better for cooling the blood and reducing swelling. The fresh juice of the herb can be used alone for epistaxis (1), hematemesis (2) and excess menses.

  1. nosebleed
  2. blood in the vomit
Euphorbia pekinensis (also called Peking spurge)
Photo by Dalgial – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

In Australia this plant (or one of its very close relatives) is considered a potentially toxic weed. The sap contains a latex which is toxic on ingestion and highly irritant externally, causing photosensitive skin reactions and severe inflammation, especially on contact with eyes or open cuts. The toxicity can remain high even in dried plant material. Prolonged and regular contact with the sap is inadvisable. The sap is often used to “burn” cancerous growths off the skin of livestock (I would not recommend doing this with humans though).

Euphorbia peplus (cancer weed , petty spurge). A common Australian weed.

The Chinese say that the plant’s (E.pekinensis) harsh properties are reduced by cooking with honey and red jujubes. Frying in vinegar also reduces toxicity. I would advise against using this plant (E.pekinensis) medicinally without specific instruction from one experienced in its use.

I only note the two plants above as relatives of the Poinsettia and to demonstrate the potential toxicity of plants in the Euphorb family. See also Post Purslane : Verdolagas for another example of a potentially toxic plant of Euphorbic origin.

Medicinal actions (of Poinsettia)

Bronchodilatory, antiemetic, anthelminthic, antiparasitic, antiviral, antibiotic, bactericide, cytotoxic, depilatory, diuretic, galactagogue, laxative, molluscacide, piscicide

Latex – analgesic (in toothache), antibacterial, antitumour, depilatory, emetic

Poinsettia is often noted as an antipyretic (fever reducing) herb but I have yet to find any definitive source for this and feel that it is a regurgitated fact and cannot be relied upon.

In Belize a weak decoction is used to bathe the breasts to increase milk flow and to soothe swollen breasts (1) (boil 9 whole plants in 1gallon – 3.75 litres – for 10 minutes). In Mexico a leaf decoction is taken internally as a galactagogue (2) (boil 8g of leaf in 500ml water)

  1. Mastitis
  2. increases breast milk production

One “cuetla” word – Cuetlacihuatl – refers to something that could cause or cure diseases specific to women (particularly genital infections) and cuetlaxochitl is noted as being a powerful “women’s medicine”

Like E.pekinensis, with the latex being used to “burn” tumours from the skin; it has also been used to treat warts and boils. The plant’s milky sap, or latex, can be toxic and irritating to the skin, but it is considered good for treating skin warts, and killing pain and bacteria (possibly the reason it has been used to treat boils)

Despite a long-standing belief in the legend of poinsettia toxicity, there is little data to support this. The toxic reputation stems from a single unconfirmed death of a 2-year-old in Hawaii in 1919. (Evens etal 2012). While the Euphorbia genus contains complex terpenes (diterpenes) that are local irritants and cause gastrointestinal upset, the pulcherrima species does not contain this toxin (Erikson etal 2005)(Balick 2007).

In the United States 22,793 cases of poinsettia exposure were collected by poison control centres from 1985-1992. Of these, 98.9% were accidental and no fatalities were observed (Duke 2009). The vast majority of exposures were ingestions (94.5%), with some dermal (1) exposures as well (4.8%). In part due to the attractiveness of the poinsettia’s foliage, nearly all of ingestions are in children (93.3%), with the majority in children younger than 2 years (77.3%); 92.4% did not develop any toxicity, and 3.4% only had minor clinical effects. The clinical effect seen with 1 particularly large ingestion was minor gastrointestinal upset and abdominal cramping. (Evens & Stellpflug 2012).

  1. skin

Contact with any part of the plant by children (or pets) will often have no adverse effects although it may cause nausea, diarrhoea, or vomiting if swallowed. External exposure to the plant may result in a skin rash. This is more particular for the sap than the flowers.

Antimicrobial effects

High sensitivity was shown by Aspergillus niger (1) to aqueous extract of leaves (Yakubu) and various aflatoxin producing fungi are also affected by phytochemicals in poinsettia (Sevanan etal 2010).

  1. The fungus Aspergillus niger is a type of mould, which can sometimes be attributed to the cause of some cases of pneumonia. It is also the causative agent of ‘black mould’ on the outsides of certain foods, such as apricots, onions, grapes, etc – therefore making Aspergillus niger a food ‘spoilage’ organism.

High sensitivity was shown by Salmonella typhi and Escherichia coli 0157:H7 on aqueous and ethanolic extracts as well as whole plant, but least on flower extract. (Yakubu)

The ethyl acetate fraction of the methanol extract of the whole plant of Euphorbia pulcherrima contains phytochemicals which have shown remarkable activities against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, S. typhi, and Ps. aeruginosa (Sharif etal 2015)

The cuetlaxochitl was honored as a divine gift in acknowledgement that it had been given to humanity to help re-birth the light on Mother Earth. Temples were adorned with this elegant and dignified plant as its flowering coincided with the date of the birth of Huitzilopochtli on the winter solstice. Huitzilopochtli represents the sacred power related to the sun and the cuetlaxochitl’s red leaves symbolizes the sacred energy of the life force of blood. It also represents the blood of warriors killed in battle and heralded the return of those warriors to this world as hummingbirds, huitzilin, returning to release the nectar/honey from the flowers (honey being associated with light). Flowers (as well as butterflies) are among the important spiritual symbols for the soul.

According to oral traditions there is an even earlier story. It is said that the flower was initially white in colour but that after the killing of the people of Taxco by the Mexica, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl, at their next blooming, turned red. Robert Bitto (1) explains further……“The ancient people who lived around Taxco cultivated the poinsettia, which was sacred to them, and at the time, the flower was white. The powerful armies of the Aztecs easily annihilated the ragtag military of the people of Taxco leaving behind few survivors in the surrounding towns. The Aztecs then incorporated this territory into their vast empire. The October following this subjugation, those natives remaining in the area beheld an amazing sight: the cuetlaxochitl started turning red instead of white. To the locals, this was the way the ancient gods of Taxco memorialized those who perished at the hands of the invading Aztecs, so that no one, including the conquerors, would ever forget those who died.”


And, as is common with creation myths, there is also a love story (1)…..According to the ancient Tlaxacalans (2) the story of the Christmas flower began with a beautiful princess. She was in love with a commoner who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. The young woman’s parents forbade her from seeing him, and from her heartache sprang forth the beautiful red flower as a reminder of forbidden love.

  2. a Nahua-speaking people of central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs

There are a few explanations as to how it became associated with Christmas.  The first is in Mexico the plant leaves only turn red naturally around Christmas.  Another explanation is that the shape of the plant leaves is believed to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red leaves the blood of Christ.  The third explanation concerns an old Mexican legend.

According to the legend, a poor Mexican girl didn’t have a present to give to the Baby Jesus during Christmas Eve services.  As she walked to the chapel with her cousin, her cousin told her that any gift given by someone who loves him will make him happy.  She still had nothing to give him.  So along the road, she gathered a small bouquet of weeds to give him.   When she arrived at the chapel she placed the bouquet of weeds at the base of the nativity scene.  To everyone’s surprise, the weeds suddenly turned into beautiful bright red flowers. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season and thus, the legend of the poinsettia was born.

Another “legend” from sixteenth-century Mexico explains the flower’s origin. Franciscan friars evangelizing the area of Taxco celebrated one Christmas with a lavishly decorated nativity scene. The rosary and a litany were prayed, a pinata was broken, gifts were exchanged, and a mass was held, during which a miracle occurred: the flower decorating the nativity scene turned red. After that night, the flower was named flor de nochebuena, Flower of the Blessed Night

Any explanation that deals with Christmas is of course a construct of post Hispanic conquest and a result of the mythological processes of the Holy Roman Catholic church. These explanations bear absolutely no relevance to the actual history of the plant and, like Christmas itself, is merely another way of converting pagans and drawing them in to the fold of the church.

  • Balick MJ. Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC, 2007.
  • Burciaga, J. A. (1993). Drink cultura: Chicanismo. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, Capra Press.
  • K.E.; Colinas, M.T.; Ramı́rez, D.; Soto, R.M. and Garcı́a, M.R. (2020). Antioxidant properties in bracts of sun poinsettia ((Euphorbia pulcherrima) from Mexico. Acta Horticulturae, (1288), 89–94. doi:10.17660/ActaHortic.2020.1288.13
  • Duke JA. 2009. Duke’s handbook of medicinal plants of Latin America. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press
  • Duke. J. A. and Ayensu. E. S. Medicinal Plants of China Reference Publications, Inc. 1985 ISBN 0-917256-20-4
  • Madeleine Ernst, Olwen M. Grace, C. Haris Saslis- Lagoudakis, Niclas Nilsson, Henrik Toft Simonsen and Nina Rønsted, Global medicinal uses of Euphorbia L. (Euphorbiaceae), Journal of Ethnopharmacology,
  • Erickson T, Ahrens W, Aks SE, et. al. Pediatric Toxicology. United States: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  • Evens, Z. N., & Stellpflug, S. J. (2012). Holiday plants with toxic misconceptions. The western journal of emergency medicine, 13(6), 538–542.
  • Gonzalez, K.E.; Colinas, M.T.;  Ramı́rez, D.; Soto, R.M. and Garcı́a, M.R. (2020). Antioxidant properties in bracts of sun poinsettia ((Euphorbia pulcherrima) from Mexico. Acta Horticulturae, (1288), 89–94. doi:10.17660/ActaHortic.2020.1288.13
  • Herrera, Fermin : Hippocrene Concise Dictionary: Nahuatl – English: 2004 : ISBN 13: 978078181011
  • Ottesen, Andrea & Duke, James. (2008). Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. 10.1201/9781420043174.
  • Sevanan, Murugan & Anand, Renu & Devi, Uma & Vidhya, N. & Rajesh, K.. (2010). Efficacy of Euphorbia milli and Euphorbia pulcherrima on aflatoxin producing fungi (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus). African Journal of Biotechnology (ISSN: 1684-5315) Vol 6 Num 2. 6.
  • Sharif, H. & Mukhtar, Madiha & Mustapha, Yahaya & Lawal, Opotu. (2015). Preliminary Investigation of Bioactive Compounds and Bioautographic Studies of Whole Plant Extract of Euphorbia pulcherrima on Escherichia coli , Staphylococcus aureus , Salmonella typhi , and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Advances in Pharmaceutics. 2015. 1-14. 10.1155/2015/485469.
  • Steinmann, V.W., and Porter, J.M. (2002). Phylogenetic relationships in Euphorbieae (Euphorbiaceae) based on ITS and ndhF sequence data. Ann. Mo. Bot. Gard. 89 (4), 453–490
  • Winek, C. L.; Butala, J.; Shanor, S. P.; Fochtman, F. W. (1978). Toxicology of Poinsettia. Clinical Toxicology, 13(1), 27–45. doi:10.3109/15563657808988227
  • Yakubu, A.I. & Dauda, Mukhtar. (2011). In vitro antimicrobial activity of some phytochemical fractions of Euphorbia pulcherima L. (Poinsettia). Journal of medicinal plant research. 5. 2470-2475.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s