The plant we know today as the poinsettia has a long and interesting history.
The fact is, that lovely plant you place in your home during the holidays was
once used as a fever medicine!
Native to Central America, the plant flourished
in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The ancient Aztecs had
a name for this plant found blooming in the tropical highlands during the short
days of winter: cuetlaxochitl. Not merely decorative, the Aztecs put the plant
to practical use. From its bracts they extracted a purplish dye for use in
textiles and cosmetics. The milky white sap, today called latex, was made into a
preparation to treat fevers.
The poinsettia may have remained a regional plant
for many years to come had it not been for the efforts of Joel Roberts Poinsett
(1779 - 1851). The son of a French physician, Poinsett was appointed as the
first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825 - 1829) by President Madison.
Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but his real love in the
scientific field was botany. Mr. Poinsett later founded the institution which we
know today as the Smithsonian Institution.
John Roberts Poinsett
Poinsett maintained his own hothouses
on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area
in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He
immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began
propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
The poinsettia was first introduced into cultivation and commercial trade by
Bartram’s Garden on June 6, 1829 at “The first semi-annual exhibition of fruits,
flowers and plants, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society”. The owner of the
commercial nursery at the time was Col. Robert Carr, married to Ann Bartram-Carr
the granddaughter of the famous American Nurseryman John Bartram.
Col. Carr received seeds and plants that exhibited “A new Euphorbia with bright scarlet
bracteas or floral leaves, presented to the Bartram Collection by Mr. Poinsett,
United States Minister to Mexico.”
In 1834, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania
nurseryman introduce the plant to Europe under its botanical name, Euphorbia
pulcherrima (literally, "the most beautiful Euphorbia"). Though it is thought to
have become known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, the origin
of the name is certainly clear!