How the Mexican fire plant became the poinsettia

articles History & People

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus
Red Poinsettia © Tony Burton, 1999
Red Poinsettia
© Tony Burton, 1999

Once upon a time in Mexico, a little boy was walking to church to see the Nativity scene. He thought hard about a gift to bring the Christ child, but had no money to buy one. Jesus will understand, thought the little boy stopping to gather a few bare weedy branches lying at the side of the dusty road, because my gift will be given with love.

When the little boy reached his destination, people already in the church turned to see what gift he had brought. When they saw the bare branches, they laughed at him.

As the little boy trudged up to the altar and laid the branches by the edge of the manger, there suddenly began to bloom an abundance of bright red flowers.

Perhaps this story is a fairy tale. Perhaps not. Who is to say?

It’s certainly true that the poinsettia originated in the south of Mexico, wending its way to the United States of America in the admiring custody of one Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), was born in Charleston South Carolina, and educated in Europe and the U.S., studying medicine, military strategy, and law. He became a member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives and subsequently held many prominent political positions. He also spearheaded the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.

Fluency in Spanish (as well as French, Italian and German) resulted in Poinsett’s diplomatic appointment by President John Quincy Adams as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (then called Minister of Mexico).

That was a tumultuous time in Mexico, and, to make matters even more difficult, Poinsett’s impossible task was to offer Mexico a million dollars to buy what is now the State of Texas. However, the Mexicans did not want to sell Texas and, in 1829, they invited the hapless Ambassador Poinsett to leave.

In 1828, shortly before his absence was requested, Poinsett, an avid amateur botanist, was visiting the state of Taxco where he first saw the plant that would eventually be named after him. He shipped samples to South Carolina, where they were called Mexican fire plant. The Aztecs had called the plant cuetlaxochitl, and from the 14th-century to the 16th, used the sap to control fevers. The leaves were also used to make dye. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, was forced to have poinsettias caravanned from the south into what now is Mexico City because the plant could not grow in such high altitudes.

Upon his return to the U.S., Poinsett shared the plant with friends and botanical gardens worldwide. Around 1836, scholar William Hickline Prescott, author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico and after whom the town of Prescott Arizona is named, was given the honor of renaming the plant. It has been known as poinsettia ever since.

While these facts are interesting, there are those of us who prefer the tale of a little Mexican boy and the miracle of his gift.

Published or Updated on: December 6, 2009 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2009
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