Joel Robert Poinsett died on this date in 1851. He was the first Ambassador from the United States to Mexico (1825-1829) appointed by President James Madison. Poinsett studied medicine and law and became a diplomat, but his avocation was botany. He brought the poinsettia plant back from Mexico to his plantation greenhouse in South Carolina and proceeded to propagate and send plants to all his friends.
“Unfortunately, as ambassador, Poinsett meddled so much in the affairs of Mexico and the rest of Latin America that the Mexicans coined a word, poinsettismo, which means obnoxious and interfering behavior. Finally, with his life in danger, Poinsett was recalled to Washington and fled Mexico on Christmas day 1829.” —(Nancy Carter at HGTV)
Poinsett not only made the poinsettia plant a popular part of America’s Christmas, he also was instrumental in founding The National Institute for the Promotion of Science, forerunner of The Smithsonian Institute.
1. Poinsettia plants, contrary to popular misconceptions, are not poisonous.
2. In Mexico (where they are still not too fond of the memory of Poinsett’s meddling), the plant is called “La flor de nochebuena” (The Flower of the Good Night or Christmas Eve). The Aztecs called it “cuetlaxochitle” [kwet-la-show-CHIT-el] meaning ‘mortal flower that withers and dies like all that is pure’.
3. Poinsettias are not just red; they come in a variety of colors from red, salmon, and apricot to yellow, cream, and white. There are also unusual speckled or marbled varieties like “Jingle Bells” and “Candy Cane” with several colors blended together.
4. Poinsettias are highly sensitive to cold temperatures; that’s why they grow best in the house.
5. Poinsettias can grow to be twelve feet tall with leaves measuring six to eight inches across.
6. The Latin name for the poinsettia plant is Euphorbia pulcherima.
7. 90% of all poinsettia plants are exported from the United States.