Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, especially an area of southern Mexico known as 'Taxco del Alarcon' where they flower during the winter.
The poinsettia plant was made widely known because of a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was the first Ambassador from the United States to Mexico in 1825. Mr. Poinsett also founded the scientific institution in the United States, the Smithsonian Institute. He had greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
One of the friends he sent plants to was John Barroom of Philadelphia, who gave the plant to his friend, Robert Buist, a plantsmans from Pennsylvania. Robert Buist was probably the first person to have sold the poinsettias under their botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima which means the most beautiful Euphorbia. It is thought that it became known as Poinsettia in the mid 1830's when people found out who had first brought it to America from Mexico.
There is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettia's and Christmas come together, it goes like this.
There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. He told Pepita he was sure that even the smallest gift that is given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy.
Pepita didn't know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.
While this is only a legend, this story does tell us what we give from our heart is what matters.