The poinsettia is known by many names across the Americas


SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Like Christmas trees, Santa and reindeer, the poinsettia has long been a ubiquitous symbol of the holiday season in the U.S. and Europe.

The name “poinsettia” comes from the amateur botanist and statesman Joel Roberts Poinsett, who happened upon the plant in 1828 on a side trip during his tenure as the first U.S. minister to a newly independent Mexico.

Poinsett, who was interested in science as well as potential cash crops, sent clippings of the plant to his home in South Carolina, and to a botanist in Philadelphia, who affixed the eponymous name to the plant in gratitude.

A life-size bronze statue of Poinsett still stands in his honor today in downtown Greenville.

While Poinsett is known for introducing the plant to the United States and Europe, its cultivation — under different Indigenous and Spanish language names — dates back to the Aztec empire in Mexico 500 years ago.

Among Nahuatl-speaking communities of Mexico, the plant is known as the cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-SHO-sheet), meaning “flower that withers.” It’s an apt description of the thin red leaves on wild varieties of the plant that grow to heights above 10 feet.

Year-end holiday markets in Latin America brim with the potted plant known in Spanish as the “flor de Nochebuena,” or “flower of Christmas Eve," which is entwined with celebrations of the night before Christmas. The “Nochebuena” name is traced to early Franciscan friars who arrived from Spain in the 16th century. Spaniards once called it “scarlet cloth.”

Additional nicknames abound: “Santa Catarina” in Mexico, “estrella federal,” or “federal star” in Argentina and “penacho de Incan,” or “headdress” in Peru.

Ascribed in the 19th century, the Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means “the most beautiful” of a diverse genus with a milky sap of latex.

Not long after Poinsett brought the flower to the U.S., interest spread quickly in the vibrant, star-shaped bloom that — in a dose of Christmas cheer — flourished with the approach of winter as daylight waned.

Demand spread to Europe. The 20th century brought with it industrial production of poinsettias amid crafty horticulture and Hollywood marketing by father-son nurserymen at the Ecke Ranch in Southern California.

Mexican biologists in recent years have traced the genetic stock of U.S. poinsettia plants to a wild variant in the Pacific coastal state of Guerrero, verifying lore about Poinsett’s pivotal encounter there. The scientists also are researching a rich, untapped diversity of other wild variants, in efforts that may help guard against poaching of plants and theft of genetic information.

The flower still grows in the wild along Mexico’s Pacific Coast and into parts of Central America as far as Costa Rica.

Poinsett's name may also live on for his connection to other areas of U.S. culture. He advocated for the establishment of a national science museum, and in part due to his efforts, a fortune bequeathed by British scientist James Smithson was used to underwrite the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

Poinsett’s legacy as an explorer and collector still looms large, as 1,800 meticulously tended poinsettias are delivered in November and December from greenhouses in Maryland to a long list of museums in Washington, D.C., affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.

A “pink-champagne” cultivar adorns the National Portrait Gallery this year.