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Poinsettia: How a U.S. Diplomat Made a Mexican Flower an International Favorite

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Romantic-style print of a young woman with long, wavy brown hair, wearing open-neck collar, with a poinsettia branches in front of her
Woman with a poinsettia, 1910. Publisher unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications.

No Christmas holiday scene in the U.S. would be complete without the poinsettia, available in more than one hundred varieties but mostly sold in vibrant red, pink, white and marbled colors. With more than 35 million sold annually, the pre-Columbian plant is the best-selling potted bloom in the United States, contributing roughly $250 million to the economy. Most are sold in a six-week stretch leading up to the Christmas holiday.

But did you know that those red poinsettias sitting on your mantle, in your dining room or under your tree are indigenous to Mexico and parts of Central America?

The plant’s name in English name stems from Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American botany enthusiast and the first U.S. Minister (ambassador) to Mexico in the early 19th century, whose papers are kept in the Manuscript Division. He came across it in Taxco, in the state of Guerrero, in 1828, brought it back to his South Carolina home and began its worldwide popularization.

But long before that, the plant had been blooming in Mexico and Central America for centuries, called by a variety of names. In Nahuatl, both the name of the peoples and the language in Central Mexico, the name for the plant was “Cuetlaxóchitl,” meaning “a flower that withers.” According to some legends, the Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico harvested them and used them in different war rituals, to produce dye for textiles and cosmetics, or for medicinal purposes (the milky white sap was used to reduce fevers).

In the “General History of the Things of New Spain,” published in1577, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún describes the shrubs as having leaves that resemble those of the cherry tree but are “very red and pliable,” according to a liberal translation of the old text. They are not fragrant, he continues, yet “they’re indeed beautiful and that’s why they’re prized.”

After the Spanish conquest, during the 17th century, Franciscan friars used the colorful, showy plant not only to decorate altars and nativity scenes but also to evangelize indigenous populations. The friars renamed it “flor de Nochebuena” (“Holy Night flower”) because it blooms around Christmas. In other parts of Latin America, the flower goes by other names, including “pastora” and “flor de Pascuas.”

Pen and ink portrait of Poinsett, from chest up, turned to his right to face viewer. He is wearing a fur-collared overcoat, slung back from his shoulders, with a high-collared button-up vest.
Joel Poinsett, diplomat, statesman and amateur botanist. Portrait: Chas. Fenderich, 1838. Prints and Photographs Division.

But when Poinsett brought it back to his greenhouses, his success with the star-shaped blooms quickly earned him international recognition far beyond his political accomplishments. Poinsett sent one of his specimens to Robert Buist, a famous Philadelphia botanist with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who exhibited the plant for the first time at a flower show in 1829.

A successful floral import-export executive, Buist introduced the plant in Europe in the1830s and christened it “Euphorbia Poinsettia” in honor of his friend. Apparently, people soon forgot the difficult Latin name, but “poinsettia” stuck with American and European consumers. After the Vatican began using this most universal of all Mexican flowers for Christmas decoration in the 19th century, all Catholic churches soon followed suit.

The mass cultivation of poinsettias reached an industrial scale in the U.S. early in the 20th century when Albert Ecke, a German immigrant, settled in Encinitas, California, and began growing them in earnest. His son, Paul, inherited the thriving business in 1919. The Ecke family soon held about 500 plant patents in the U.S., nearly a fifth of them for the poinsettia modifications the family patriarch crafted.

By 2002, the plant’s success was enshrined, with Congress formally recognizing Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day to honor Poinsett and mark his death on that day in 1851.

Today, the plant is an important source of revenue for Mexican farmers, who export cuttings to American growers. Poinsettias account for 60 percent of cuttings exported to global markets, although the COVID-19 pandemic caused a drop in 2020, according to the Mexican Flower Council.

According to Mexican popular culture, if you receive a poinsettia plant as a gift it will bring you good luck and prosperity. Call it poinsettia, “Cuetlaxóchit,” “pastora” or “Nochebuena,” it’s a great gift to brighten your hearth this season.

Bright red poinsettia leaves in the foreground, with snow-covered mountains in the far background.
A poinsettia, now popular worldwide, grows in Lachung, an Indian village close to the border of Tibet. Photo: Alice Kandell. Prints and Photographs Division.

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Comments (7)

  1. Joel Poinsett did some noteworthy things. He was also an obstacle to an independent institution that became the Smithsonian.

  2. Gracias! I have never seen anything written about the history of Poinsettias. It’s a wonderful gift to learn another aspect of my maternal grandmother’s cultural history. I’ll be sharing the link with family this Christmas.

  3. It was actually Albert Ecke who popularized cut poinsettias in the United States when he began selling them roadside in Hollywood, California in 1906. To keep up with demand he acquired land in West Hollywood and near Beverly Hills before son Paul took over in 1919 and eventually moved operations to the San Diego area in the 1920s.

  4. He was also a supporter of the US invasion of Mexico which took 2/3 of this countries’s land.

  5. I have Woman with Poinsettia in a shadow box frame purchased at an auction 30 yrs ago. Exact photo you show. I have always loved her and enjoyed your article!!

  6. Your blog states that in 2002 Congress enshrined December 12th as Poinsettia Day in honor of Joel Poinsett. I read the read the House Resolution and it is actually a resolution ” To recognize the significant contributions of Paul Ecke, Jr. to the poinsettia industry, and for other purposes.”
    The resolution also states, “Whereas December 12 has been traditionally recognized as “National Poinsettia Day” for more than 150 years.”
    I cannot find when December 12th was officially approved as a national day honoring poinsettias however.
    I have included a link to the 2002 resolution.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for writing and for such a close read. First, the story is about an American Ambassador to Mexico named Joel Poinsett and how the plant was named after him in the U.S. and Europe. The later resolution is a small part of that history. It contains a couple of major errors.

      The resolution begins with the most obvious one: “Wheras, the poinsettia, native to Central America…” This cannot be true because no one called the plant a “poinsettia” until the 1830s, and only then in the U.S. and Europe, not in Central America. It would have one believe that there was a Mexican plant called the poinsettia and, by chance, an American ambassador with almost exactly the same name happened across it.

      Obviously, the plant itself is native to the region, but it was called “Cuetlaxochitl” for centuries in Nahuatl, as the story points out. Spanish priests, beginning in the 17th century, called it the “flor de Nochebuena” and others called it “pastora” and “flor de Pascuas.”

      After Poinsett brought it back to the U.S., cultivated and popularized it, a floral import/export executive in Philadelphia in the 1830s dubbed it the “Euphorbia Poinsettia,” in his honor. The name stuck.

      It grew to such popularity in the U.S. and Europe that after Poinsett’s death on Dec. 12, 1851, the day became traditionally known as “Poinsettia Day.”

      Remarkably, the resolution fails to mention the connection.

      Later, Albert Ecke and his family had great success with commercial growth of the plant, but the blog is about Poinsett’s role, as the headline makes clear.

      Finally, the blog says that Congress was “formally recognizing” Dec. 12 as National Poinsettia Day with the resolution, as it had been “traditionally recognized” since Poinsett’s death. The blog does not say that Congress “enshrined” or “officially approved” the day, as if it were a federal holiday.

      Again, thanks for writing and happy holidays,

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