The High-Handed Poinsettia

By Steven Foster |

A poinsettia in Belize
A poinsettia in Belize

The palace of the last Aztec king, Montezuma (1466-1520), was adorned with a gift from the gods—Cutetlaxochitl—“the flower that perishes like all that is pure.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, the  Aztec’s Christian conquerors adopted this plant festooned with  green and red leaves to symbolize the blood of Christ and rebirth of life. We know it today as Poinsettia. Native to Mexico and Central America, Poinsettias are not the neat 1–2 foot tall potted plants familiar to Americans rather they are tropical shrubs 4–15 feet tall!  The red leaf-like bracts or floral leaves beneath the barely noticeable flowers are what attracts our attention. A member of the spurge or euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae), Poinsettia is known to botanists as Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd. ex Klotsch. A synonym is Poinsettia pulcherrima (Willd. ex Klotsch) Graham. “Pulcherrima” means beautiful.

In 1825 soon after Mexico became independent, President John Quincy Adams offered the new diplomatic post to Tennessee Senator, Andrew Jackson. Jackson declined the position as he aspired to another job—the job that Adams held. The populist Jackson defeated the cerebral John Qunicy Adams in the general election of 1828. President Adams appointed a South Carolina politician with botanical interests to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at the U.S. Mission in Mexico City. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851).

The plant that once adorned Montezuma’s palace intrigued Minister Poinsett. He sent cuttings back to Charleston, South Carolina and to Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist. Buist shared Poinsett’s beautiful euphorbia with the first nursery to propagate the plant and offer it for sale—Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, America’s original nursery and botanical garden established in 1728 by John Bertram (1699-1777). In 1829, Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband Col. Robert Carr introduced “a beautiful euphorbia” into the commercial trade. In 1834, Buist distributed plants to botanical enthusiasts in the United Kingdom. Then in 1836, Dr. Robert Graham of the Botanic Garden Edinburgh named the plant for Poinsett.  The gangly, weedy greenhouse novelty remained just that until the Ecke family of Encinitas, California developed a proprietary grafting method on dwarf stock and mass-produced the plant for the Christmas trade. They are the seasonal potted plants that we know today by the common name Poinsettia.

If you are a savvy aficionado of Mexican political slang, you may honor America’s first ambassador to an independent Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, as the inspiration for the word poinsettisimo—an expression denoting an obnoxious, arrogant or high-handed government official.