12 Days of Christmas, South Florida Style

The Bethlehem Star

painted leaf

Painted leaf, aka fire on the mountain, aka wild poinsettia, a Florida native plant.

We don’t exactly know what the Star of Bethlehem might have been, astronomically speaking. A bright comet perhaps. Maybe a super nova. Or maybe a conjunction of bright planets, like the one that occurred in December 2020 featuring Jupiter and Saturn and has been called the Christmas star.

Whatever it was, the star heralded Christ’s birth and, as written in the Gospel according to Matthew, led the Three Wisemen, the Magi, if you will, westward to the manger and the newborn king. The poinsettia, with its star-like collection of pointed leaves, symbolizes the star, Christ’s blood and his purity.

The plant is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico and an amateur botanist and gardener. Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America, and in the 1820s, Poinsett came across his namesake plant while traveling in southern Mexico. He was so taken with its beauty that he had some plants shipped back home to his greenhouse in South Carolina, and later gave away plants to friends and botanical gardens.

The scarlet red of the poinsettia is said to represent Christ’s blood; the white, his purity.

Poinsettias don’t grow wild in Florida, but a close cousin called painted leaf is native to the Sunshine State and is quite common here. In fact, another of its common names is wild poinsettia. But our favorite name for this plant is fire on the mountain.

It’s not nearly as spectacular as the poinsettia, but it is pretty enough, and it is cultivated not just for its looks but as a butterfly plant. Like the poinsettia, its color is in its bracts — leaf-like parts — not its flowers, which are small and ordinary.

There are various stories told as to how the poinsettia became part of the Christmas tradition, and they all involve a young girl who was told by an angel to bring a gift to the baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve service. She protested that she could not offer a worthy gift, but the angel told her to gather some weeds along side the road.

She did so, and when she presented her gift at the altar, crimson blooms sprouted and the girl’s weeds became the beautiful poinsettia.

“Sing the Christmas song, poinsettia red
For in a lowly manger bed
A little babe was born”

It’s not hard to imagine those “weeds” being our guy, painted leaf. By the way, there is another plant closely related to the poinsettia that is native to Florida, but also a scourge to farmers around the globe because it crowds out crops and takes over fields. It’s called fiddler’s spurge. Another name: hypocrite poinsettia.

The Twelve days of Christmas

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.