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

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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