Pascua Flower: Why Is It a Christmas Symbol?
La flor de pascua, the pascua flower, is a flower closely related to Christmas. Many people, especially in Latin America, put the pascua flower on a pot and use it as an ornament to decorate their houses and give them a more cozy look.
Its scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, but you might know it in English as the poinsettia.
In Spanish, it has several different names that we’ll explore below.
Join me in discovering more about this beautiful flower—its history, origin, and the connection it has with Christmas.
Before setting up the tree to celebrate, get comfortable and start scrolling down to learn all about the pascua flower!
Pascua Flower in Spanish-speaking Countries
Spanish is a broad language, and sometimes, native speakers don’t understand each other because of the different ways to call certain things. As a Guatemalan, I’d say una flor de pascua, meanwhile an Argentine wouldn’t understand me since they call it la estrella federal.
Here are the different ways to call the pascua flower (or Christmas Eve flower) in Spanish!
|Mexico||la flor de nochebuena|
|Guatemala||la pascua, la flor de pascua|
|Nicaragua and Costa Rica||la pastora|
|Venezuela||el papagayo, la flor papagayo|
|Peru||el cardenal, la flor cardenal|
|Argentina||la estrella federal|
|Spain||la flor de pascua, el pascuero|
PRO TIP: You can also call the pascua flower poinsetia in Spanish, but it’s not very common.
The Origin of Pascua Flowers and Christmas
The pascua flower is native to the Americas, specifically to Mexico and Central America.
An indigenous tribe that inhabited Mexico before the Spanish colonization—the Mexicas—called the pascua flower cuetlaxóchitl which possibly means flor que se marchita (flower that withers) or flor de cuero (leather flower.) Mexicas and Aztecs used them to dye clothes and make tea.
During the Spanish colonization, Catholic monks began decorating their churches with the pascua flower. They changed its name to flor de nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower) because it blooms only in November and December and its deep red leaves remind viewers of the traditional Christmas colors—red, white, green, and gold.
This is ultimately why the pascua flower became a Christmas symbol.
Thanks to the Franciscan monks, the pascua flower crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1678, but it was not until the 1960s that it started becoming the symbol of Christmas in Spain and some other European countries.
Some other sources point out that the Scottish botanist, Robert Buist, made the pascua flower cruzar el charco (“skip the pond”) using his business in Philadelphia which transported the pascua flower to Europe. Buist died in 1880, but thanks to him, the Vatican used the pascua flower as an ornament on Christmas Eve in 1899 on Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Another popular legend originated in the 16th century, and tells the story of a little boy (or girl, in some versions) in Mexico, who always attended the Nativity scene with his friends who offered gifts to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. This made the child sad, as he was very poor and had nothing to give. He went to a church where he cried in silence in a corner. Suddenly, when he opened his eyes, he saw that a pascua flower had appeared, providing him with the perfect gift to give Baby Jesus.
How Pascua Flowers Got to the U.S.
The pascua flower crossed the border in the personal belongings of Joel Roberts Poinsett—an American politician born in 1779.
James Monroe, the 5th president of the United States, sent Poinsett to Mexico as the current equivalent of an ambassador. Poinsett visited a town in Southern Mexico called Taxco de Alarcón, around 105 mi (170 km) from Mexico City, where he saw la flor de pascua.
He sent some specimens home and he started harvesting the flower in his greenhouse in Greenville, South Carolina. He also gave some specimens to his acquaintances. Someone presented it first in an exposition in Philadelphia in 1929.
Afterward, a German emigrant whose name was Paul Ecke started cultivating the pascua flower in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, California. The German left the business to his son, Paul Ecke Jr. in 1963 and he expanded the family business. Paul Ecke III took the business over in 1992 and he established operations in Guatemala. Twenty years later he sold the business and it is now the biggest pascua flower shareholder in the world, with over 50% of the shares.
Pascua Flower Facts
Poinsettias are beautiful and mysterious. Here are some facts you probably didn’t know!
1. Pascua Flowers Are Not Flowers
Pascua flowers are not actually flowers. While they have a tiny flower in the middle, called cyathium, botanists consider them to be bushes. Their leaves, called brácteas (bracts), get their red color from anthocyanins—red pigments inside the plant.
2. Pascua Flowers Need Day and Night to Bloom
Along with red pigments, these flowers require darkness in order to bloom their vibrant color. As the boreal autumn starts, days become shorter and shorter until the winter equinox (December 21st in the Northern hemisphere.) Depending on where you are, the day can be as short as 9 hours, but in Mexico and Central America, it is usually 11 hours long. If you plant pascua flowers near artificial light you can disrupt their blooming cycle.
3. Not All of Them Are Red
Many pascua flowers are red, but there are other colors to them. Natural pascua flowers can come in red, white, ivory, pink, and marble. There are bicolor varieties and you can find pascua flowers in purple, orange, and yellow, but there are more than 100 varieties of them.
4. Pascua Flowers Can Grow Up to 15 Feet Tall
Pascua flowers can be huge! Botanists have worked on them to make them look small and just like a houseplant so everybody can have one (or many more) to use as an ornament at home. But in Mexico and Central America, you can find pascua flowers as tall as 15 feet (4.5 m!)
5. Pascua Flowers and December 12th
Pascua flowers are connected to December 12th for two reasons. December 12th marks the day that Joel Roberts Poinsett died, and that is why, in 2002, the U.S. House Representatives made December 12th National Poinsettia Day.
On the other hand, December 12th is the day of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), the patroness of Mexico—the land of the pascua flower, and the Americas.
6. Mexico Is Not The Biggest Producer of Pascua Flowers
While Mexico is the land of pascua flowers, they produce around 20 million pascua flowers yearly, this is less than a fifth of what they produce in the U.S., Germany, or Australia.
California is the biggest producer of pascua flowers in the U.S. while in Spain, the city of Almería alone, produces 25% of the 9 million pascua flowers Spaniards produce yearly. The rest of la comunidad autónoma (the autonomous community) of Andalucía (where Seville is) produces 19% of pascua flowers, making a grand total of 44% of Spanish production.
7. Pascua Flowers Are Not Poisonous
A lot of people think that pascua flowers are poisonous because when you break their stem or little branches a white milky liquid comes out of it. This liquid is not toxic, but it does contain latex, which some people are allergic to. It can cause irritation to your skin, eyes, mucus membranes, or digestive system if you eat it.
Before You Go, Learn Some Spanish!
Pascua flowers are beautiful, and if you are into gardening, Latin America is a whole continent full of different plants and flowers to see, examine, and maybe even acquire.
Places such as Panama and Costa Rica are great examples of the rich flora that Latin America has. But even if you’re not planning to visit Latin America, speaking Spanish nowadays has a ton of benefits. Being able to talk to more than 53,000,000 Spanish-speakers in the U.S. alone is amazing. Setting goals to make your family bilingual, and improving your cognition and decision-making abilities is also a nice thing that Spanish can do for you.
But don’t take my word for it. Sign up for a free Spanish class today and start learning some Spanish. Also, discover why Homeschool Spanish Academy has been teaching Spanish for over ten years. Learn all about our flexible schedules, earning high school credit, and different payment options.
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