by Whit Gibbons

December 19, 2004

I was reading an older edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica about a man described as "a U.S. statesman noted primarily for his diplomacy in Latin America" and also for being the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Joel Roberts Poinsett, of Charleston, S.C., was born in the late 1700s and lived till 1851. Only near the end of the article was it mentioned that Poinsett also brought back from Mexico a flower that is now the top-selling potted plant in the United States, the Christmas flower, or poinsettia.

Although no one seems to contest that John Poinsett brought the bright red flowers and their seeds to the United States, some controversy surrounds the exact manner in which the species persisted and became of commercial importance. The current thinking among horticulturists is that Poinsett sent the seeds to a commercial nurseryman named Robert Carr. Turns out that Colonel Carr was married to Ann Bartram Carr, whose grandfather John Bartram established Bartram's Botanic Garden in Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, this twisted tale has a connection with William Bartram the traveler, who was the son of John Bartram and the uncle of Ann, but whether William ever even saw a poinsettia, wild or potted, I have no idea. Anyway, according to one of the largest producers and distributors of poinsettias today, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., Colonel Carr "introduced the poinsettia into commercial trade from Bartram's Garden on June 6th, 1829." The occasion was an exhibition by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which ultimately evolved into the long-standing Philadelphia Flower Show.

Poinsettias belong to a large and economically important family of plants known as the Euphorbiaceae, many of which are called spurges. The more than 7,000 species in the family are distributed throughout the continents and islands of the world, making it one of the largest and most widespread plant groups. Some euphorb species are used as ornamental plants; others are the source of rubber, castor oil, and tapioca.

Poinsettias are similar to dogwoods in that the parts of the plant that are so attractive to us are not actually petals; they are bracts, which are small, inconspicuous structures on most other flowering plants. Most of us are familiar with poinsettias as potted plants that are prevalent during the holiday season, but in their native Mexico and Central America, poinsettias are large shrubs that get more than 10 feet tall. As with the commercial variety, these showy plants bloom during the winter in the wild.

Clearly, poinsettias have become a commercial product of note during the winter holiday season. We have all seen the traditional red poinsettias, which still constitute approximately three-fourths of the market. But varying shades of reds, pinks, creamy white, and a recently developed purple poinsettia are among the other varieties available today. To see some dramatic-looking poinsettias such as Cranberry Punch, Freedom Salmon, and Monet Twilight, click on Poinsettia Varieties at the bottom of the page at

The Web site also has some tips on poinsettia care. Keep the thermostat set between 68 and 70°F, which is about normal room temperature for most people, being sure they never experience temperatures below 50. Keep poinsettias away from fireplaces, heat vents, and areas where they might experience cold drafts. Water them whenever the dirt in the pot feels dry, but be careful not to overwater. The plant should be placed in an area to receive about six hours of indirect sunlight each day, preferably avoiding direct sunlight. And if you want to keep your poinsettia thriving after the holiday season, use an all-purpose fertilizer. But, and this is very important, do not fertilize the plant until the blooming season is over. Properly cared for plants will last for several months.

Today, J. R. Poinsett's fame rests primarily with his having introduced the United States to its premier Christmas season flower. But his name also lives on in some Spanish-speaking countries--in an entirely different context. Apparently his policies in Mexico were unpopular and his personality abrasive. Someone coined the word "poinsettismo," which is used to characterize someone as having "officious and intrusive behavior," a less flattering legacy than the beautiful "poinsettia."

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