Greetings all, and a happy midwinter holiday season to you!
Just to prove I am still alive–yes, I still have big plans for this little blog, and they are coming, but sometimes things just have to move in their own time no matter how much it drives us impatient people crazy–here’s a post about one of our favorite Christmas decorations here in the U.S., the beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).
I was inspired by a link shared by Rosalee de la Foret about plant-based holiday rituals. I was a little disappointed, and this is no reflection on Rosalee, who by sharing this link gave me hours of entertainment, because there actually wasn’t much info on plants. However, in the section about poinsettia, the post says:
“The Aztec name was said to mean ‘mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.'”
I don’t know the original source of that etymology, but it is all over the internet. I’m a language nerd, and if you are too you might find this interesting. I’m hoping that even the non-language-nerd plantophiles among you will enjoy this; but if not you can skip to the tl;dr version at the end. Ok, so, although I know next to nothing about Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by the Aztecs), I thought that etymology up above sounded a little spurious. Then I thought, many plant names tell us something about how the plant works medicinally, I wonder if this could be one? And if so, what does its indigenous name actually mean?
So I did a little internet research.
I found that there are actually two versions of the Nahuatl name to be found on the interwebz: cuetlaxochitl and cuitlaxochitl. Now xochitl means flower, that’s easy enough. It’s the other part that’s tricky. If the original form was indeed cuitla-, it is apparently derived from cuitltatl, which means excrement, giving us a name that basically means “poop-flower”. Here’s the dictionary entry from the online Nahuatl Dictionary (click to embiggen):
The dictionary also has an entry for cuitlaxochitl (none for cuetlaxochitl) which indeed translates it as poinsettia; however, they note that there was no text that contained the full word, only its component parts. They speculate the name derives from poinsettia’s growth habit. (I hope this isn’t ruining your enjoyment of the flower.)
Since there apparently is no text containing the word cuitlaxochitl, it must come from oral tradition. So it’s not surprising the word would be transcribed in different ways, and there is a possibility that the correct form was indeed cuetlaxochitl, as reported in the post about plant-based holiday rituals and in many other places on the internet that don’t cite their sources. There are so-called “Aztec herbals” (cool!) such as the Codex Cruz-Badianus (a.k.a. Codex Barberini) and Florentine Codex, but they don’t have any recognizable illustrations of poinsettia.
Using the Nahuatl Dictionary, I found that cuetla- is a root in various verbs that describe a sort of floppy, back-and-forth wavering or wriggling motion. It can even describe shapes with a wavery outline, like a canyon winding through a landscape. Some examples involving cuetla- include the way a warrior shakes and thrusts a spear, the way a snake wriggles when caught, a person fainting, and the movement of leaping flames. It is also the root of a verb meaning to wither. So this is how we get to a translation that means a flower that withers, though the “mortal”, “perishes”, and “like all that is pure” parts seem to be complete nonsense as far as I can tell.
But which is it? Poop-flower or wavery-withering-flower?
The name question inspired me to dig deeper into poinsettia’s medicinal uses, with which I was not familiar. The genus Euphorbia belongs to the Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family. These often have irritating latex sap and some are poisonous. Poinsettia sap is only mildly irritating, but that seems to have garnered it an unearned reputation for toxicity.
I found next to no information on the ethnobotany of poinsettia. There is a reference to the sap being used as a galactagogue, although the author who mentions it claims it is not effective as such. All over the internet I find repeated the claim that the Aztecs used the sap to make a fever-reducing (antipyretic) medicine, but I can’t find the original source so must remain skeptical for the time being. Other members of the spurge family, however, are used medicinally in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere. Depending on species they may be used to treat skin diseases (including skin cancer), warts, cancerous tumors, “hair related problems”, respiratory complaints, diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections, venomous bites, wounds, rheumatism and arthritis, diabetes, jaundice, vomiting, “viral fever”, and as an antiseptic. But this is a diverse family including some quite toxic members (e.g., castor bean) so don’t assume that medicinal qualities are the same across all members of the family. In other words:
“The worldwide distribution of the family exposes its members, to all sorts of habitats to which they must adapt, therefore inducing a large variety of chemicals (secondary substances) that are employed for survival/defense….medicinal properties of some [Euphorbiaceae] species may be due to stress factors that characterize most habitats of the family.”
One recent study on E. pulcherrima found it to be very effective at inhibiting the growth of aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus mold (source); another found some indications that the leaves contain cytotoxic compounds that may be useful against cancerous tumors (source).
Poinsettia is native to Mexico, where its indigenous name probably translates to either “poop-flower” or “withering flower” (depending on whether the name is actually cuitlaxochitl or cuetlaxochitl). I looked for information on poinsettia’s medicinal and other botanical properties to see if they were reflected in either or both of these names.
My research was hampered by the fact that I don’t currently have any university affiliation and therefore can’t access the full text of professional/academic journals. I could find very little specifically about the medicinal uses of poinsettia, but other members of the spurge family are used medicinally around the world, for a variety of complaints of which skin diseases and digestive disorders may be the most common.
A name translating to “poop-flower” might make sense given that many Euphorbiaceae species are used to treat diarrhea and as laxatives. All over the internet I keep finding the word for excrement, cuitlatl, translated as “residue” and then making the poetic (if uninformative) leap to “soil,” making poinsettia the “flower that grows in soil”, but can’t find the original source, and the Nahuatl Dictionary is pretty firm that the word actually means feces. I cannot find any indication that poinsettia has any more of an affinity to dungheaps than any other plants do, so if this is the name of the plant I would speculate that the “poop” relates to its medicinal application.
Alternatively the plant’s name might be more like “withering flower” or “wavering flower.” The leaves do have a wavy sort of outline which might have been in accordance with the Aztec concept of the word root cueta-. Again though, this could have referred to a medicinal use–perhaps for fainting, another meaning of cueta-. Another possibility might be that it referred to a tendency for the plant to wilt. I would assume it wouldn’t wilt any more than any other plant, in its native habitat, but I must admit that in spite of my ministrations, every poinsettia I have brought home has wilted in pretty short order.
Sorry I couldn’t solve that little linguistic mystery, but I learned a lot in the effort. I hope it was interesting for you. If you have any experience using poinsettia medicinally, I’d love to hear about it!
Meanwhile, if you are interested in Aztec medicine, here is an article on the topic which you can actually read in its entirety online. Here is a book chapter looking at the pharmacological effect of Aztec medicinal herbs, also complete. Here is a page that even has a few recipes and images from the Codex Cruz-Badianus.