Poinsettia Namesake Comes With Thorny Past

US official Joel Roberts Poinsett spotted the plant in Mexico 200 years ago, popularized it in the US
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 24, 2023 7:20 AM CST
Poinsettia Namesake Comes With Thorny Past
Producer Rosalva Cuaxospa walks amid her potted poinsettias in a greenhouse in the San Luis Tlaxialtemalco district of Mexico City.   (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Like Christmas trees, Santa, and reindeer, the poinsettia has long been a ubiquitous symbol of the holiday season in the US and Europe. But now, nearly 200 years after the plant with the bright crimson leaves was introduced north of the Rio Grande, attention is once again turning to the poinsettia's origins and the checkered history of its namesake. The AP offers a primer:

  • The name "poinsettia" comes from the amateur botanist and statesman Joel Roberts Poinsett, who happened upon the plant in 1828 on a side trip during his tenure as the first US minister to a newly independent Mexico. Poinsett, who was interested in science as well as potential cash crops, sent clippings of the plant to his home in South Carolina, and to a botanist in Philadelphia, who affixed the eponymous name to the plant in gratitude.
  • While Poinsett is known for introducing the plant to the United States and Europe, its cultivation—under different Indigenous and Spanish language names—dates back to the Aztec empire in Mexico 500 years ago. Among Nahuatl-speaking communities of Mexico, the plant is known as the cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-SHO-sheet), meaning "flower that withers." It's an apt description of the thin red leaves on wild varieties of the plant that grow to heights above 10 feet.

  • Not long after Poinsett brought the flower to the US, interest spread quickly in the vibrant, star-shaped bloom that—in a dose of Christmas cheer—flourished with the approach of winter as daylight waned. Demand spread to Europe. The 20th century brought with it industrial production of poinsettias amid crafty horticulture and Hollywood marketing by father-son nurserymen at the Ecke Ranch in Southern California.
  • For his part, Poinsett was cast out of Mexico within a year of his discovery, having earned a local reputation for intrusive political maneuvering that extended to a network of secretive masonic lodges and schemes to contain British influence. Most people in Mexico never say "poinsettia" and don't talk about Poinsett, according to Laura Trejo, a Mexican biologist who is leading studies on the genetic history of the US poinsettia. "I feel like it's only the historians, the diplomats and, well, the politicians who know the history of Poinsett."
  • The "poinsettia" name may be losing some of its luster in the United States as more people learn of its namesake's complicated history. Unvarnished published accounts reveal Poinsett as a disruptive advocate for business interests abroad, a slaveholder on a rice plantation in the US, and a secretary of war who helped oversee the forced removal of Native Americans, including the westward relocation of Cherokee populations to Oklahoma known as the "Trail of Tears."
(The "humblest Christmas tree in the world" just sold for thousands.)

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