There are certain plants that make us think of the holidays. They show up in November at our local greenhouses and stores, and they give us all those holiday vibes. But how much do we know about their history and basic care? Let’s take a quick peek into a few well known festive plants.

The poinsettia originates from southern Mexico.

The ancient Aztecs called them ‘cuetlaxochitl’ and they had many uses for this plant. They used the flowers (actually a special type of leaf known as bracts rather than flowers) to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics. The milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers. Today we call the sap latex!

The poinsettia was first associated with Christmas in southern Mexico in the 1600s, when a priest named Franciscan used the colorful leaves and bracts to decorate extravagant nativity scenes.

There is an old Mexican legend of how the poinsettia became a symbol of Christmas

” There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.

‘Pepita’, he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, 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 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’.

But how did the poinsettia become known in the US? The 1st Ambassador from the US to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, had a greenhouse in South Carolina. In 1825 he brought some of these plants back to grow and give to friends, family, and botanical gardens. The plant became known as poinsettia because of Joel Robert Poinsett!

These vibrant plants have become a well known symbol of Christmas. They are classic, eye-catching, and quite easy to care for!

Poinsettias are tropical so they love light and will tolerate full sun. But they’ll put up with almost any kind of light; however, in a dark corner they will become leggy.

Keep them evenly wet but not soggy. With proper care your Christmas beauty will give you gorgeous color all season long!

The poinsettia isn’t the only famous Christmas plant!

Christmas Cactus

The Christmas cactus is another popular holiday houseplant. But this one has more of a mysterious history. There are many stories about its origin. Some say it’s originally from Bolivia, some say Brazil. There are different heartwarming tales of its origin. But most are based on religion.

One story claims that Father Jose, a Jesuit missionary, tried to teach the natives of Bolivia about the Bible but was struggling to gain their trust. On Christmas Eve, he became overwhelmed by the enormity of his task, so he prayed to God for guidance. Suddenly, he heard the villagers singing a hymn he had taught them. When he turned, he saw the village children marching into the church with armfuls of bright flowers they had gathered for the Christ Child. These flowers became known as the Christmas cactus.

In another tale a young boy prayed to God, asking for a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the jungle. On Christmas Day, when he emerged from his hut, he saw that the jungle had filled with the flowering cacti overnight.

We may never know its true origin but we do know it is from the Schlumbergera family and is an epiphyte and has many “siblings” that fall into the “holiday cactus” family the Thanksgiving Cactus, Easter Cactus and Christmas Cactus. This holiday trio look VERY similar. The difference between the three cacti can be found in the shape of the leaves. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumgera truncata) has very pointed and claw shaped projections on the edges of the leaf. The Christmas cactus (Schlumgera bridgesti) has leaf projections which are more scalloped or tear drop shaped. The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerrii) has very rounded edges which are centralized on the leaf. However, to most of us, these houseplants look exactly the same. An easier way to determine what holiday cactus you have is by its blooming time.

The care for all 3 holiday cactus is the same despite when it blooms. With proper care your holiday cactus can live for 100 years!

Here are a few tips to keep your plant healthy and living that long life:

Don’t repot your Holiday Cactus for a few years because they actually bloom better when “pot bound”!

They like humidity, so if your house is dry indoors in winter, put it on a tray of pebbles, or place it near other plants. While this beauty needs bright light, direct sunlight will burn your plant. Its watering needs are not like a typical cactus. Due to its tropical origin you will want to water when the top 1″ or so of soil is dry, but don’t let your Holiday Cactus sit in water.

The history of these 2 symbols of Christmas is fascinating. We may never know if they are true or not, but we do know bringing these beautiful houseplants home with us will add some color and vibrancy to our winter wonderland!