July 13, 2020

You Say Cuetlayochitl, I Say Poinsettia

From the 1866 "The Beautiful Leaved Plants" (Public Domain)

From the 1866 “The Beautiful Leaved Plants” (Public Domain)

• By Janine Pineo •

Not long after turkey day comes that day for which we all are waiting, a day that brings together a nation every year.

A day to honor the cuetlayochitl.

You know, that national observance held every Dec. 12?

We’d better sound out the name first: cuetlayochitl.



Well, that may be an extra syllable or two too long. I had issues locating an Aztec on short notice.

I was able, though, to find a definition of the word online. At The Garden Management System site, it says cuetlayochitl means “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.”

Those Aztecs were such a happy folk.

It could be worse: Wikipedia says that in Nahuatl, a branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family still spoken in Mexico, the plant is called cuitlaxochitl, which means excrement flower. It further explains that it may be because birds ate the seeds and the plants appeared to germinate from the bird droppings.

Mortal flower is a lot more festive, don’t you think?

Latin lovers – and you know who you are – call it Euphorbia pulcherrima, which easily can be mangled with an extra syllable if you don’t speak the language. Latin lovers are easier to find, however, so it is ew-for-bee-a pul-ke-ri-ma.
It stands for Euphorbus, who was a physician to Juba, who was king of Mauritania. And pulcherrima means, if you can believe it, very pretty.

So it sort of means very pretty physician to Mauritanian king.


That’s a far cry from, say, oh, excrement flower.

Then it came to pass that someone asked a fellow named William Prescott to create a different name because the plant was becoming popular north of the Rio Grande.

Why Bill?

Why not Bill, I ask.

Bill was a historian and horticulturist, a fine combination if you like history and gardening, and was asked to come up with an easy name for the American masses since the American masses are notoriously unable to recognize plants named in anything except plain American. Strange how the plant was becoming popular even though it didn’t have a catchy name; I mean, who wouldn’t want to buy the very-pretty-physician-to-Mauritanian-king plant? Or mortal flower plant? Or, even, excrement flower plant?

Bill thought about it – and one can only hope he weighed the less-than-merry history on it – and decided that the absolute best name for the plant was to call it after the American who discovered it in Mexico in 1828.

Granted, the plant can grow more than 10 feet tall in its native land, which means someone likely “discovered” it long before this American. I mean, there is that pesky Aztec name for it. Even Montezuma, the last king of the Aztecs, knew about the plants and shipped them in for his viewing pleasure. I, too, like history and I think Montezuma predates 1828, but without an encyclopedia handy I could be wrong.

So Bill decided we couldn’t call it cuetlayochitl.

And Montezuma’s revenge just didn’t have that joyful ring to it.

And Euphorbia pulcherrima was so old-school.

No, it should be named after Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and a man who was, according to “100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names,” unpopular in Mexico for his “intrusive and officious behavior.” The Mexicans even coined a name for said behavior: poinsettismo.

Hence, Bill said, he’s just the guy to name a plant after, especially a plant for that season of goodwill, joy and peace.

Welcome, poinsettia.

Depending on how American you talk, it can have an extra syllable. Or not.
So when Tuesday, Dec. 12, rolls around (it was chosen in honor of the dear ambassador because it is the date Joel Poinsett died – a fortuitous holiday coincidence pointed out by numerous Web sites), wish yourself a happy National Poinsettia Day.

You have until then to decide how to pronounce it.

I’d tell you, but that would be officious of me.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 2006.