In Turkey I was very excited to see poinsettia growing wild – flowers the size of dinner plates, brash and beautiful, like their botanical name – Euphorbia pulcherrima.
Its English name derives from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the US in 1825. In Turkey they are known as Atatürk’s Flower, because Atatürk, the father of the modern republic (1881-1938), liked it and encouraged its cultivation in Turkey. There are many statues of Atatürk around the place, often with a bird or a child, accompanied by a plaque saying Peace at Home, Peace in the World in Turkish, English, German and Russian.
I arrived home to an article by Alys Fowler in the Guardian recounting the story of how poinsettia came to be associated with Christmas. In Mexico, where they are native, back in the sixteenth century, a poor girl called Pepita (or possibly Maria) couldn’t afford to buy a present for Jesus’s birthday. An angel told her to gather a bouquet of weeds to place on the altar of her church, where they transformed into the blood-red bracts so familiar to us today.
Once you’ve seen the poinsettia growing where it’s meant to, it looks too much like a caged bird in a centrally heated living room. To relieve our wall-to-wall grey, Alys Fowler advises a Christmas cactus instead because as well as being easier to keep alive after it’s bloomed, it also filters out pollutants in the air.