Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Poinsettia - Named for a Southerner

Christmas may just be a plant lover's favorite holiday. Along with the ubiquitous fir trees, and the mistletoe, the poinsettia is also known for its association with the holiday. And, while everyone knows what a poinsettia looks like, many people probably do not realize that the plant was named for a man who is now little known outside of his native state of South Carolina.

Joel Roberts Poinsett was born in Charleston in 1779. During his lifetime he attained the high government positions of U.S. Congressman, Secretary of War (under Martin Van Buren), and the first Minister to Mexico (under James Madison). Poinsett was also known for his contrary outspoken unionism during the Nullification Crisis in the early 1830s. His correspondence and inside information to President Andrew Jackson kept the chief executive appraised of the situation in the Palmetto state and thus allowed the president to take a firm stand without risking the possibility of armed conflict. In addition, Poinsett helped found the National Institution for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution).

Poinsett, like many men in his day, dabbled in science. His specific interest was botany, and it was while he was Minister to Mexico, he visited southern Mexico (Taxco del Alaracon) and he discovered the bright and beautiful plant. Poinsett instantly fell in love with the plant and had specimens shipped back to his green houses in South Carolina and to botanist friends. One of Poinsett's plants was sent to Phildelphian John Bartram, who in turned provided a plant to noted botanist and author Robert Buist. Interestingly, when I interned at the Stonewall Jackson House I learned that Jackson, a green thumb himself, owned a copy of Buist's book on gardening.

The name Poinsettia started to come into use in the mid 1830s and the plant's association with Christmas developed over the years. National Poinsettia Day, December 12, was declared in honor of Joel R. Poinsett who passed away on that day in 1851. Merry Christmas!!!

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