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Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Gutbier V-17 Angelika Red'
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima), members of the diverse spurge or Euphorbiaceae family, have become a modern-day symbol of the holiday season in many countries around the world. Indeed, they are also known as Christmas Stars. Their scientific name, which translates as "the most beautiful euphorbia," is very appropriate.

These plants have long been associated with Christmas in Central America. In Mexico, they figure in a charming religious story of a young girl named Pepita, who was walking sadly toward church on Christmas Eve. At the sight of all the children hurrying along with gifts for the Christ Child, she burst into tears. She was so poor that she had nothing to offer and was too ashamed to enter the church without a gift of her own to honour Christ's birth. Her cousin Pedro said consolingly, "Pepita, I'm sure that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes." So Pepita gathered a handful of leaves from a common, straggly shrub. She entered the church and humbly set down her bouquet. At that moment, the leaves burst into a brilliant red. The plant was called "Flor de Nochebuena" or "Flower of the Holy Night." The story tells that since then all wild poinsettias turn to flamboyant colours for Christmas.

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