The checkered history of the poinsettia’s namesake and the flower’s origins get new attention

by Joshua Brown
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Poinsettia's Namesake History

The historical background of the poinsettia and its namesake is currently drawing renewed attention, much like other holiday symbols such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus. The poinsettia, with its vibrant crimson leaves, has long been a familiar emblem of the holiday season in the United States and Europe. However, as we approach nearly two centuries since its introduction to the U.S., there is a growing awareness of the complex history surrounding both the plant and its namesake.

The name “poinsettia” is derived from Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and statesman who encountered the plant in 1828 during his role as the first U.S. minister to newly independent Mexico. Driven by an interest in both science and potential cash crops, Poinsett sent plant clippings to his home in South Carolina and to a botanist in Philadelphia, who subsequently gave the plant its eponymous name in appreciation. Today, a life-size bronze statue of Poinsett stands in his honor in downtown Greenville, South Carolina.

However, Poinsett’s time in Mexico was marked by controversy, and he was expelled from the country within a year of his discovery. He gained notoriety for his intrusive political maneuvers, including involvement with secretive masonic lodges and efforts to counter British influence. Moreover, his legacy includes owning a rice plantation in the United States and serving as a secretary of war during a period that witnessed the forced removal of Native Americans, including the tragic “Trail of Tears.”

In her biography titled “Flowers, Guns and Money,” historian Lindsay Schakenbach Regele portrays Poinsett as a political and economic pragmatist who engaged in international intrigues. Despite being a slaveowner, he opposed secession and did not live to see the Civil War. Nevertheless, Schakenbach Regele criticizes Poinsett’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, particularly his role in their expulsion from their homes.

The cultivation of the poinsettia dates back to the Aztec empire in Mexico, over 500 years ago. Among Nahuatl-speaking communities in Mexico, the plant is known as the “cuetlaxochitl,” which translates to “flower that withers.” This name aptly describes the thin red leaves of wild varieties of the plant, which can grow to heights exceeding 10 feet.

In Latin America, the plant is referred to as the “flor de Nochebuena” or “flower of Christmas Eve,” reflecting its association with holiday celebrations. Additional regional names include “Santa Catarina” in Mexico, “estrella federal” in Argentina, and “penacho de Incan” in Peru. In the 19th century, the Latin name “Euphorbia pulcherrima” was assigned to the poinsettia, meaning “the most beautiful” within a diverse genus of plants with latex sap.

Recently, there has been a trend among Mexican youths, including those in the U.S. diaspora, to prefer the name “cuetlaxochitl” over “poinsettia” or “Nochebuena.” However, for most ordinary people in Mexico, the historical background of Poinsett and the name “poinsettia” are not widely discussed or considered.

Mexican biologists have conducted genetic research on U.S. poinsettia plants, tracing their origins to a wild variant in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, confirming the significance of Poinsett’s encounter in that region. They are also exploring a diverse range of wild variants, which may aid in protecting these plants and their genetic information.

Despite his contentious history, Joel Roberts Poinsett’s legacy endures. Thousands of meticulously cared-for poinsettias are delivered each November and December from Maryland greenhouses to museums in Washington, D.C., affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Poinsett’s influence extends to other areas of U.S. culture, as he advocated for the establishment of a national science museum, ultimately contributing to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution through a bequest from British scientist James Smithson.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Poinsettia’s Namesake History

What is the history behind the name “poinsettia”?

The name “poinsettia” originates from Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and statesman who discovered the plant in 1828 during his role as the first U.S. minister to Mexico.

Why is there renewed attention to the poinsettia’s origins?

Renewed attention stems from the complex history of its namesake, Poinsett, who was involved in controversial political maneuvering and the forced removal of Native Americans from their land.

What is the preferred name for the poinsettia now?

Some Mexican youths and enthusiasts are favoring the name “cuetlaxochitl,” reflecting the plant’s Indigenous origin in southern Mexico.

How did the poinsettia become associated with the holiday season?

The plant has historical ties to the Aztec empire in Mexico, and it is known as the “flor de Nochebuena” or “flower of Christmas Eve” in Latin America.

What is the significance of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s legacy?

Despite his troubled history, Poinsett’s legacy endures, as he played a role in the creation of the Smithsonian Institution and remains associated with the poinsettia’s introduction to the United States.

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