The poinsettia's association with Christmas appears to have origins in 16th century Mexico, where legends exist of a child too poor to provide a gift for the Christmas celebration at church. Guided by an angel, the child gathered foliage from the roadside to place before the altar, where the leaves miraculously turned a beautiful crimson color and became known as the Flor de Noche Buena, or Flower of the Holy Night...
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) holds an interesting place in the annals of American history. After studying and traveling abroad as a young man, Poinsett returned to his home in South Carolina with advanced social skills, an extensive education, an affinity for politics, and some powerful connections.
President James Madison appointed Poinsett as Special Envoy to Argentina and Chile, where he became knowledgeable in Latin American affairs. In 1820, he became a member of the House of Representatives and served on the Committee of Foreign Affairs under President Andrew Jackson, who appointed Poinsett as the first U.S. Minister (ambassador) to Mexico. He became deeply and controversially involved in Mexico’s political turmoil. Poinsett was also Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren, an advisor to West Point, and the founder of an organization that ultimately became the Smithsonian Institution.
In addition to his political career, Poinsett was also a botanist. While visiting the Taxco area of southern Mexico in December 1828, he happened upon a beautiful, fiery red plant known as Cuetlaxóchitl to the Aztecs, whose priests used its milky white sap to treat fevers and its prized red bracts (modified leaves) for purification rituals. Fascinated by his find, Poinsett sent specimens to his plantation in South Carolina and then propagated his discovery for friends and various botanical gardens.
By the late 1830s, Poinsett’s plant was a seasonal tradition in Philadelphia and New York, although its scientific name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, did not find favor with admirers. Painted Leaf and Mexican Fire Plant were common names until 1843, when historian and gardener William Prescott renamed the plant in honor of Poinsett. By the turn of the century, poinsettia themes were fashionable across the country for holiday parties, seasonal postcards, and Christmas trimmings. In 1991, Congress declared December 12 as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate the date of Poinsett’s death.
Initially, the poinsettias grown outside Mexico had red bracts and a short lifespan. Today’s varieties come in a wide range of colors and are more compact, durable, and longer lasting. The poinsettia is not an easy plant to cultivate – its limited growing season requires very specific conditions, and it is vulnerable to destructive disease during each phase of the crop cycle. Ideal poinsettia production requires professional knowledge, a greenhouse environment, and a lot of effort.