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The immigrant Christmas flower

Sumana Roy | Updated on December 25, 2020 Published on December 25, 2020

Red alert: A Mexican native, the poinsettia travelled to the other continents, to Germany, with naturalist Humboldt and botanist Bonpland, and to the Himalayas with the colonial botanists   -  ISTOCK.COM

Turning leaf: The poinsettia was misrepresented as ‘toxic’ for most of the 20th century, with a US Food and Drug Administration newsletter of 1970 saying that ‘one poinsettia leaf could kill a child’

The red poinsettia shrub reminds us of a history of travel and migration that governments, even those that take oaths on the Bible, choose to forget

* The potted plants at the florist’s, and everywhere else, in hotels, homes, windows, hospitals, offices and educational institutes, looked ordered and sophisticated, rescued from the uncertainty of the natural world

* Named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, America’s first minister to Mexico, it was known before that as ‘Mexican flame flower’ or ‘painted leaf’

* How the poinsettia came to be associated with Christmas goes back to Mexico as well to a girl called Maria who, too poor to get gifts, left a bunch of weeds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Those weeds in the story transformed into what we now call the poinsettia

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Like people carry fridge magnets, trinkets, clothes, scarves, city maps or food unique to the place they are visiting, my mother and I liked to bring back saplings or plant cuttings. She is no gardener, and, once home, the plant is put in my father’s care. Once, on the way back from Sikkim, we stopped at a place where my parents drank tea and my brother and I ate biscuits that are available only in roadside tea stalls. My mother noticed a shock of red flowers. Unsure whether they were flowers or the feathers of a bird, she pointed at them. The Nepali tea seller, whom my mother remembers as an elderly woman with skin thinner than butter paper, said “Christmas flower”. Then she broke a couple of branches — without bothering to ask permission from the plants of course — and put them in my mother’s hands. “Merry Christmas,” she said.

My father planted them in the backyard of our old house, where they grew fiery red every winter — a neighbourhood aunt compared them with the rosy cheeks of fair-skinned Nepali children in the hills from where these shrubs had come. Soon, there were red-headed fences in some of the houses in our neighbourhood. The name didn’t strike us as odd: If there could be ‘sunflower’ and ‘night queen’, there could also be ‘Christmas flower’. There was only one problem though —there was something called a ‘Christmas tree’, but the ‘Christmas flower’ did not grow on it.

Time passed, and when I met the shrub after years —a decade and more — they had, instead of growing taller, gone shorter. The circumstances had changed as well. Instead of the waywardness of uneven fences in a small town, they were now being sold in shopping malls in Europe. Mountains of red and green in flower pots, they looked like artificial flowers from a distance. Though this was the first time I’d actually seen them, it felt like I’d known them — the way it sometimes feels to meet a distant maternal relative, from their facial similarities with our mothers.

After the formal introductions — the use of their formal name, which I discovered only in Germany, never having bothered to find out — the sales assistants at the florist used a familiar name: ‘Christmas stars’. The potted shrubs at the florist’s, and everywhere else, in hotels, homes, windows, hospitals, offices and educational institutes, looked ordered and sophisticated, rescued from the uncertainty of the natural world. They were in complete contrast to their relatives that I’d met in the Himalayas: Tall and urchin-like. I said the name a few times just to try and fit it with them: Poinsettia. I learnt that there are two ways to pronounce it. One acknowledging the presence of the second ‘i’, the other ignoring it — ‘poinseta’. Why that name?

It owed to the relationship between botany, its history of nomenclature, and colonialism, of course. Named after Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), America’s first minister to Mexico, it was known before that as ‘Mexican flame flower’ or ‘painted leaf’. It had other names, more idiosyncratic: instead of being called to service for Christmas, the Spanish invoked it for a slightly later season, calling is ‘pascua’, meaning ‘Easter flower’. Poinsett sent cuttings back to South Carolina, where it changed the landscape into what it is today — the red and green Christmas colours.

How the poinsettia came to be associated with Christmas goes back to Mexico as well, to a girl called Maria who, too poor to get gifts, left a bunch of weeds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Those weeds in the story transformed into what we now call the poinsettia. Not only did it get a new name, it travelled to the other continents, to Germany, with naturalist Humboldt and botanist Bonpland, and to the Himalayas, where I found them, with the colonial botanists of the 19th century. Its appropriation by the Christmas industry wasn’t immediate. The ‘neat’ bracts that we now find covering the unostentatious yellow flowers owes to experiments by scientists, so that there are more than a hundred kinds of the shrub in North America. Its names come from its optics as well as the places and people that were responsible for the new varieties.

The Christmas tree and the poinsettia shrub remind us of a history of travel and migration that governments, even those that take oaths on the Bible, choose to forget. Jesus, we know, wasn’t a white man. The coniferous Christmas tree was not a native of the region where Jesus was born. And so with the poinsettia, born in Mexico. Immigrants of worlds conquered by Christians, these species became residents of happy rituals of the most difficult season in the Northern hemisphere. If only we — and our governments and religions — could accept people with the kind of openness we accepted ‘foreign’ plants, our celebrations might be more hearty.

But, then, I forget something. The poinsettia was misrepresented as ‘toxic’ for most of the 20th century, with a US Food and Drug Administration newsletter of 1970 saying that ‘one poinsettia leaf could kill a child’. It was an error, a kind of mischaracterisation that immigrants have had to learn to live with.

Sumana Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on December 25, 2020
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