His public service was legendary. In 1821, South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett had founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Charleston. In 1838, when he was the Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren, he had a northeast county of Arkansas named after him by that state’s governor. At that point in his career, he’d served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as America’s first diplomatic minister to Mexico.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, Secretary of War, painted by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887)
In fact, the decorative Christmas plant that takes its name from him is such a footnote to his illustrious life that it is mentioned only ONCE in the entire length of “The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett,” an 1888 biography.
Poinsett was an avid amateur botanist who’d built hothouses on his White House Plantation near Georgetown, SC. He first came across the plant that he would have been introduced to as cuetlaxochiti sometime after 1822, when he began his diplomatic posting to Veracruz.
The plant is native to the Taxco de Alarcón region in southern Mexico. From its bracts (the petals are actually bracts surrounding clusters of tiny yellow flowers) the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. They used the milky white sap, today called latex, to make a fever treatment.
In 1825 Poinsett sent the first clippings of the plant back to South Carolina for study, and from there had samples sent to trusted friends.
Initially Americans called Poinsett’s new plant “painted leaf” and “Mexican fire plant.” In 1833, German botanist and director of the Berlin botanical gardens, Karl Ludwig Wilenow, assigned it the scientific name, euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning ‘very beautiful euphorbia.’
This 1833 letter from Poinsett to JB Campbell of Charleston gives a sense of how active and extensive Poinsett’s ongoing network of plant tradings was:
I wish you would make a collection of cuttings and send them up [to Poinsett’s plantation] by the John Stoney, the Schooner in our employ, which must be leaving town now. Lewis and Robertson will inform you all about where abouts and probable times of sailing.
Cuttings of all manner of Roses, Pittisporum [sic], Myrtles, Etc. Etc. Seeds of the wild orange, a peck at least. At Belevedere the Doctr. [Dr. Joseph Johnson] can give you a great variety of cuttings for all which we shall be thankful. Think nothing too common, we have literally nothing here. Even a Multiflora will be acceptable.
Lots of daily roses, cuttings will do and we will strive to make them grow. Seeds of Arbor vitae etc. etc. Cuttings of Cape Jessamine, the Japanese honey suckle, and above all a few roots of Ivy to be had at the Grove at Mr. Wagner’s who can give you other things and at Noisettes in profusion. Send lots of cuttings of the Tamarisk it grows at Judge Richard’s cottage.
(SC Historical & Geneaological Magazine, the Poinsett-Campbell Correspondence; April 1941, Vol XLII, No 2]
Among the recipients of Poinsett’s plant trading was John Bartram, Jr. of Philadelphia, whose father had established one of the first plant nurseries in America. Poinsett sent him a clipping of euphorbia pulcherrima.
Bartram in turn gave the plant to another friend, Robert Buist, also a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its new botanical name.
But the ‘poinsettia’ wasn’t being called that, yet.
Back in Mexico, Poinsett’s collection of the euphorbia pulcherrima was not at all atypical during his time there: he traveled widely throughout that country looking for interesting specimens, and ended up bringing home samples of the red and yellow mimosa, the Mexican rose, and the Confederate rose—a hibiscus that turns from white to pink in a day. While in Mexico he learned how to propagate olive trees, of which he sent samples back to SC.
Poinsett’s botanical transplantings operated in both directions: he is credited with introducing thе American Elm іntο Mexico.
“There are plenty of trees [here in Mexico]; poplar, ash, and elm; and one flourishing specimen of the latter species, which we see from the windows in front of the house, was brought here by Mr. Poinsett,” says one Frances Calderon De La Barca, whose letters from Mexico were published in ‘Life In Mexico,’ by William Hickling Prescott in 1843.
In 1836 a Special Diplomatic Mission from Spain had arrived in Washington, DC headed by Don Angel Calderon de la Barca, husband of Frances.
William Hickling Prescott was at the time at work on his ‘History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella,’ which was of great interest to De la Barca.
The Spanish diplomatic couple soon established literary relations with Prescott by way of Joel Poinsett, a mutual friend. De la Barca, Spain’s first diplomat to independent Mexico, knew Poinsett through diplomatic circles; Prescott had cultivated Poinsett as a resource for Mexican contacts with historical knowledge. (Poinsett would go on to provide Prescott the names of Lucas Alaman, Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, and a Count Cortina for Prescott’s 1843 ‘History of the Conquest of Mexico.’)
De la Barca asked Prescott, a horticulturist as well as a historian, if he might be able to come up with a more pleasing, non-scientific name for euphorbia pulcherrima, as it was becoming more popular with the public. Perhaps a catchier name was needed for plant sellers? Or perhaps this search for a new name simply reflected the 19th century convention of naming things after their ‘discoverers’?
Whatever the case, a name based on their respected friend Poinsett, who introduced the plant to North American audiences, seemed only natural.
There’s just one open question about the final name.
The now-famous plant was not the only thing named after Joel Poinsett. Poinsett Bridge, a stone-arch bridge in Greenville County, was built in 1820 as part of the main highway leading from Charleston to North Carolina; in 1924 the Poinsett Hotel arose in downtown Greenville, SC.
So why wasn’t the lovely red plant named ‘the poinsett’?
William Prescott’s Ties with Mexico, by C. Harvey Gardiner, ‘Journal of Inter-American Studies,’ Vol 1, No. 1 (Jan 1959)