In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.
During college, I studied one summer in Cuernavaca, a little town south of Mexico City. In Mexico, the story is told that long ago the people flocked to church on Christmas Eve because they loved to fill the Christ child’s manger with flowers. A little boy named Jose was too poor to buy any flowers. The story continues that an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from the side of the road. Following the instructions, Jose brought the weeds to the church. When he put them in the manger, they changed into beautiful scarlet flowers. The Mexicans call them the “Flor de la Noche Buena,” the Flower of Christmas Eve.
Physician and Diplomat
Almost two centuries ago these striking blooms caught the attention of Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, America’s first minister (ambassador) to Mexico between 1825 and 1829. Dr. Poinsett brought the plant to the United States and raised it in his greenhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. It was named in his honor in 1836. The initial Latin name was Euphorbia pulcherrima, “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”
You may know Dr. Poinsett as the founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution. He had studied law at his father’s insistence, without much interest, before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He served in both the South Carolina legislature and the United States House of Representatives as well as Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren. He traveled extensively in Europe, western Asia, and Latin America.
The plant was initially known in the United States as “painted leaf” or “Mexican fire plant” until eventually it was named poinsetta pulcherrima, or “poinsettia,” in honor of its “discoverer” Dr. Poinsett. There are also white, pink and dappled poinsettias. By the early 1900s, they were sold as potted plants in California. Many poinsettias are still raised in the state, especially for use as Christmas gifts and decorations. The city of Ventura, California is even known as the Poinsettia City.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian