Sure, he was a Representative from South Carolina, the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, and a Secretary of War. But what is Representative Joel Roberts Poinsett really famous for? This time of year, the answer might be found in a nearby display of holiday decorations.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 2, 1779, Poinsett trained as a physician in Scotland; however, he ultimately showed greater aptitude for languages and natural sciences than medicine. Poinsett abandoned his studies to travel extensively through Europe and the Middle East. He eventually served as a commercial agent to several South American countries before returning to South Carolina. Poinsett developed an interest in local and national politics as an advocate of internal improvements in his native state. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1816 before he won a seat in the U.S. House in 1820. Poinsett’s political support extended to national issues, including tariff legislation and greater independence for new South American nations. His Latin American expertise caught the attention of newly elected President John Quincy Adams, who appointed Poinsett the first Minister to Mexico in 1825. Upon his return to the United States in 1829, Poinsett allied with his old friend, President Andrew Jackson, and famously opposed South Carolina’s adoption of the doctrine of nullification. Poinsett later served as Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren.
Yet none of these political accomplishments earned Poinsett the lasting fame brought to him by his hobby: botany. Throughout his world travels, Poinsett collected plant specimens that he cultivated in his private South Carolina greenhouses. As early as 1826, Poinsett brought back the bright green and red, star-shaped plant that Mexicans called the “fire plant,” “painted leaf,” or “Flor de Noche Buena” (The Flower of the Holy Night) in reference to its legendary first bloom on Christmas Eve. The finicky, tropical plant “grew abundantly” under Poinsett’s careful green thumb and he sent specimens to a leading Philadelphia botanist, Robert Buist, an officer with the world-renowned Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS).
Poinsett’s successful cultivation of this specimen earned him international recognition. On June 6, 1829, the plant—exhibited under the Latin name Euphorbia pulcherrima—was a popular specimen at the first PHS flower show. (The society’s exhibition was the precursor to today’s prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show.) In 1835, Buist informed Poinsett that the brightly colored plant was making quite a splash across the pond and—in consultation with a leading Scottish horticulturalist—Buist had christened it Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of the South Carolinian’s success. The new name stuck in Europe and in the United States.
The poinsettia received even more publicity in the United States in the 1840s. Poinsett, “an avowed party man,” aided in the election of Democratic President James Knox Polk and he invited the President-elect to his home to recover from the rigors of campaigning in December 1844. The future First Lady Sarah Childress Polk was reportedly so enamored with Poinsett’s namesake plant’s unique shape—and grateful for the South Carolinian’s political support—that she embroidered her inaugural ball gown with a poinsettia pattern.
The poinsettia’s popularity blossomed in the United States in the early 20th century, due primarily to southern California farmer Albert Eckes and future generations of his family, who cultivated a hardier version and promoted its decorative use. By 2001, poinsettias contributed $256 million in sales at a wholesale level and on July 20, 2002, the House passed H. Res. 471, designating December 12 National Poinsettia Day.
Though a statesman most of his life, Poinsett’s political contributions before his death in 1851 remain a footnote in history. Instead, the cultivation of this holiday plant—“the high point of his scientific endeavors” according to one biographer—became this worldly South Carolinian’s lasting contribution.
Sources: George Anthony Hruneni, Jr., “Palmetto Yankee. The Public Life and Times of Joel Roberts Poinsett: 1824–1851,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972; Andrew Rolle, “Poinsett, Joel Roberts,” American National Biography 17 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Susan Irene Morse, “The Philadelphia Horticultural Society and the Urban Landscape, 1827–1927,” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, Philadelphia, 2000; Grace E. Heilman and Bernard S. Levin, eds., Calendar of the Joel R. Poinsett Papers in the Henry D. Gilpin Collection (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1941); Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 1934; Baltimore Sun, December 10, 1939; New York Times, December 25, 1960; Boston Globe, November 22, 1964; H. Res. 471, 107th Cong., 2nd sess.