Joel Poinsett is to the poinsettia what Christopher Columbus is to America; a lot of folks like to say he discovered it, but someone was definitely already there. “Poinsett was a diplomat who facilitated the trade of plants,” says Jim Faust, a Clemson University horticulture professor who studies poinsettias. “He built a network of people interested in plants because he saw it as an economic opportunity for South Carolina.”
Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Poinsett was dispatched to Mexico by President James Monroe in 1825. There, Poinsett spent his free time pursuing horticultural interests. “Legend has it, he came across a poinsettia in a market in Taxco, Mexico,” Faust says. By the time Poinsett sent specimens of the winter-blooming plant home in 1828, the Aztecs were closing in on several hundred years of medicinal and decorative usage.
The plant was first offered commercially in the States in 1836, and Philadelphia nurserymen dubbed it “poinsettia.” Such was its appeal that by 1845, the wife of newly elected president James K. Polk wore a dress festooned with embroidered poinsettias to the inaugural ball.
In the twentieth century, the commercialization of Christmas coincided with westward expansion of the railroad, and mass cultivation and marketing of poinsettias as holiday plants exploded.
“There are so many legends attached to the flower, but the most pervasive is that it’s poisonous,” Faust says. “It isn’t.” The only matter left to settle is pronunciation: poinsett-i-a or poinsett-a? Faust says both are correct.