Poinsettias, a popular Christmas plant, changed names and journeyed to the United States, where they are symbols of Christmas and Jesus’ birth and crucifixion.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1799-1851) served in the South Carolina and U.S. Houses of Representatives, supported the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, traveled all over Europe and South America, married, and studied plants in his spare time.
In 1826, while serving as the first US Ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett noticed the poinsettia by the side of a road in Southern Mexico. Fascinated by the leaves, Poinsett brought it back to his greenhouse in South Carolina.
The poinsettia has a history with the American public. In the 1830’s, the future Christmas plant’s popularity spread throughout America. The poinsettia’s original scientific name euphorbia pulcherrima, or “very beautiful, ” did not suit the adoring public. “Painted leaf” and “Mexican fire plant” sufficed until the plant was named poinsetta pulcherrima, or “poinsettia”, in honor of Ambassador Poinsett. Congress even deemed December 12 National Poinsettia Day to commemorate the date of Poinsett’s death.
The poinsettia was not new to the peoples of Mexico, however. The Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl. They used the sap for medicinal purposes and the red leaves to make die.
Later the Mexicans, converted to Christianity, were the first to celebrate the poinsettia’s Christian meaning. They saw the poinsettia’s red leaves as symbols of a deep love for Jesus.
A ancient legend connected the poinsettia with Jesus’ birth. A young brother and sister had nothing to offer to baby Jesus at Christmas. They took the long way to church hoping to find something along the way. Desperately, they picked up some green leafy weeds and brought them into the church.
The story differs after the children entered the church. In some accounts, the children lay the weeds at the feet of the baby Jesus, in other accounts before the Blessed Virgin Mary. In either case, the weed suddenly erupts into sparkling red blooms that overshadow all the baby Jesus’ other gifts, and the children rejoice.
Poinsettia and Jesus’ Birth and Crucifixion
The poinsettia with its star shaped foliage pattern has been connected with the Star of Bethlehem shining at the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-21). The poinsettia’s blood red leaves symbolize the blood sacrificed for love of God. Scriptural events connected with the poinsetta include the deaths of the Holy Innocents, babies killed by King Herod madly in search of Jesus (Matthew 2:13-18) as well as the Jesus’ death and crucifixion (all four gospels).
Centuries after American Joel Roberts Poinsett rediscovered a plant known to Mexicans for generations, people all over the world continue to enjoy the fiery poinsettia during the holiday season, though they may not know its Christian meaning or colorful history.
- Wolford, Ron. University of Illinois’ Poinsettia Pages. 2008.
- “Joel Roberts Pointer.” Sumter, South Carolina Civic Website. 2008