Happy Poinsettia Day! Here’s a History on the Poinsettia’s Namesake

No flower says Christmas like the beautiful poinsettia. The shape of the Poinsettia can be interpreted as the Star of Bethlehem, which led the three wise men to Jesus. The red leaves symbol Christ’s blood, while the white ones represent his purity. The plant’s name, however, comes from a South Carolina native named Joel Roberts Poinsett.

The flower is a native of Central America, specifically a southern area of Mexico known as ‘Taxco del Alarcon’ where the festive flower played a significant role in Aztec life. Purple dye was made from the leaves, as were cosmetics. The milky white sap was made into medicine to treat fevers.

Poinsett, born in Charleston, South Carolina, was the first United States ambassador to Mexico and 1825. His presence helped established trade relations with Argentina and Chile, and during a time of unrest, encourage Chileans to create a national constitution. In 1812, Poinsett held the first meeting at his residence. He was very involved in politics, and held many government positions including Andrew Jackson’s confidential agent, keeping the president informed during the Nullification Crisis. He was also Secretary of War, had a seat in the State House of Representatives, and served on the Board of Public Works.

He valued the Arts and Sciences and was a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the useful Arts, a predecessor to the Smithsonian. Somehow, during all this, Poinsett managed to become a botanist. While he did not discover the Mexican ‘flor de la noche buena’ (flower of the holy night), he can be attributed to its arrival into the United States. Finding the flower beautiful he sent some back to South Carolina and grew several more in his plantation greenhouses. From there, the flower was gifted to friends and botanical gardens. Interestingly, the Poinsettia was first sold as cut flowers in the 1800s. It wasn’t until the Ecke family in California (today’s main producer of the plant) sold them as whole plants in the 1920s. While we still see them as houseplants in small pots, the Poinsettia plant can grow up to 15 feet tall as a shrub in Mexico and were once considered weeds.

Joel Roberts Poinsett died in Stateburg of tuberculosis on December 12th, 1851 and is buried at Church of the Holy Cross. In 2002, the House of Representatives created Poinsettia day, which is celebrated December 12th, each year each year.

Church of the Holy Cross

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