Most everyone knows that the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was adopted in the United States as a Christmas decoration when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant into the United States in 1825. So since this weed was so highly esteemed by the neighbors to the north, the Mexican too adopted this plant as a holy Christian symbol giving it the name Flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower).
However, it was valued prior to Christianity reached the shores of México. The Poinsettia, or Cuitlaxochitl as it was known in Nahuatl, was used by the pre-Hispanic indigenous people to make clothing dyes and treat fevers. It was also thought to host the souls of fallen warriors making it a symbol of new life.
Nochebuena grows wild in many areas of Mexico. It isn’t a small potted plant that you may be accustomed to seeing at Christmas though. It can grow between 10 to 15 feet high if left it its own devices.
There is a mistaken belief that the Flor de Nochebuena is toxic. Although other plants in the spurge genus are, the Euphorbia pulcherrima has a low toxicity level. The latex from the sap can cause allergic reactions. If the sap gets into the eye, it may cause temporary blindness. Ingesting parts of the plant is mildly irritating to the stomach and may cause diarrhea and vomiting.
In the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla, and Mexico, the sap is applied directly to the skin to treat warts and labial herpes. The latex from the sap is also used as a depilatory in some areas. Apply the sap to the hairy area, allow to dry and then rip off.
In the states of Morelos, Puebla, and Sonora, an infusion of the bracts is used to increase the milk supply of nursing mothers. Sometimes the woman will lick the sap or eat raw leaves as well. This use comes from the Aztec belief that the plant contains milk since the sap it exudes is very milk-like in appearance. In fact, this use was recorded in the Florentine Codex as well as by Francisco Hernandez.
The leaves are used for external inflammations and arthritis. They are warmed and applied directly to the affected area. Fora treatment of a swelling caused by a blow or a bruise, the bracts are boiled to make a poultice then lime is squeezed onto the area which is then wrapped. The ground leaves are also used to treat ringworm.
Infusions made from the bract combined with bugambilia and gordolobo (mullein) are used to treat heart conditions and respiratory infections. Infusions from the bracts are also used in to regulate menstruation. Another decoction from the plant is made to be used externally as a vaginal wash when there is excessive bleeding.
So this year, instead of tossing this decorate plant out after the holidays, perhaps you should add it to your home apothecary.
If you are interested in learning more about the medicinal value of common Mexican plants….