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The Christmas Flower

The joy and color of the Christmas season wouldn't be the same without the brilliant red and green of the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherimma). And for the Lowcountry, the poinsettia is more than a Christmas tradition, for it was a native Charlestonian who first introduced the plant to the United States.

Joel Roberts Poinsett was the first United States minister to Mexico in the 1820's. Sent south by President James Monroe to report on troubling political unrest in Mexico and to negotiate a new border treaty, Poinsett first encountered the plant Mexicans called flor de nochebuena, or Christmas Eve flower, in a farming area south of Mexico City, where it had been cultivated for generations. Poinsett was an avid botanist and sent samples of the striking plant back home, where it was named in his honor. On returning to South Carolina, Poinsett would go on to serve in the state legislature, where he supported anti-slavery and Unionist measures although himself a slaveholder, and eventually became Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson.

Although the poinsettia is most closely tied to Poinsett, it was actually known and described as early as 1803 by naturalist Alexander von Humboldt during a Mexican expedition. Humboldt reported that the plant had been grown by the Aztecs for use in traditional medicine as a fever reducer. In Humboldt's day, the plant was commonly called the "Mexican flame flower" or "the painted leaf." Its association with Christmas is said to have begun in 16th-century Mexico, when a poor little girl unable to afford decorations for her church's celebration of the Nativity was told by an angel to gather weeds by the roadside, which soon sprouted bright red, star-shaped flowers and green leaves. The flowers' shape became associated with the Star of Bethlehem and their color with the blood of the crucifixion, and they soon appeared in churches throughout Mexico during the Christmas season.

Poinsett's contribution to our Christmas decoration is actually a flowering shrub or small tree that can grow as high as thirteen feet. More than 70-million of them are sold each year during a six-week holiday season, the majority of which are grown by a California ranching corporation which maintains nurseries in Guatemala. Despite common belief, the plant is not toxic to humans or animals, although if consumed in sufficient quantities it can produce mild nausea.

Enjoy these brilliant plants this holiday season, a Lowcountry tradition thanks to Joel Poinsett.

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