This morning I read a report about a very festive extortion scam happening in Italy. Four alleged mafiosi have been arrested in Naples, charged with forcing shop owners to buy poinsettias for more than 100times the wholesale price.
The gangsters had been demanding as much as 100 Euros (£85) per plant for the past few years. Police said that business owners refusing the “special offer” had their shops vandalised and stock stolen or damaged.
These striking plants, known as Christmas Stars in Italy, are popular Christmas decorations in homes throughout the world. Native to Mexico, they had great significance to the Aztecs, who called them Cuetlaxochitl, before Catholic priests adopted it into their celebrations in the 16th Century. They named it Noche Buena, meaning Holy Night or Christmas Eve.
The brightly-coloured part of the plant isn’t a flower, but specialised leaves called bracts. The flowers are tiny yellow-white clusters at the centre of the bract.