Times Past

Dan Krieger: Botanist, diplomat brought us the poinsettia from Mexico

In the midst of winter, we are surrounded by flamboyant, star-shaped poinsettias. Their festive red blooms have become a symbol of hope for Christmastime and the new year.

The plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was appointed by President John Quincy Adams as the first U.S. minister to Mexico in 1825.

Poinsett initially studied law, but became a medical doctor and a respected botanist. He traveled widely in Europe during the Napoleonic era.

In 1806, he went to St. Petersburg, Russa, where Tsar Alexander I urged him to become a high-ranking officer in the Russian army.

He was one of the last foreigners to flee the burning city of Moscow before the onslaught of Napoleon’s army.

Given a Cossack guard, he traveled down the Volga River basin to Baku, where the river empties into the Caspian Sea. There, the Persian Khan of Kuban showed him the vast petroleum pits that had been used by fire worshippers for centuries. Poinsett was among the first to foresee the use of petroleum as a fuel.

When he returned to the Western Hemisphere, he served as President James Monroe’s special agent to the nascent republics of Argentina and Chile, which were fighting for their independence from Spain.

During the War of 1812, he had some successes in reducing the influence of the British in Chile.

The State Department and Presidents James Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams came to regard Poinsett as America’s foremost expert on Latin American affairs.

The plant-loving envoy was dispatched to Mexico City.

The Aztecs called the winter-blooming plant “cuetlaxochitl,” meaning “the flower of leather petals.” They considered it to be a flower of new life, earned by warriors who died bravely in battle. They would return as butterflies and hummingbirds to sip the plant’s delicate nectar.

Following Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, the legend did not sit well with the Spanish authorities and the Catholic clergy. The cuetlaxochitl was a reminder of blood sacrifices and Aztec war-making.

The clergy developed their own counter legend that goes something like this: During the advent celebrations preceding Christmas in Taxco, Mexico, during the early 1520s, the green plants surrounding the Nativity scene suddenly turned red overnight. The flower was named “flor de nochbuena,” “Flower of the Blessed Night.”

The poinsettia’s first bloom in October or November was the sign of the approach of Christmas. It became a symbol of Mexico’s conversion to Christianity.

Poinsett loved the plant and introduced it to the United States. In 1843, William H. Prescott published his bestselling “History of the Conquest of Mexico.” Though partly blind, Prescott was both a historian and horticulturist. He was asked to give the plant a popular name. He wrote a description of Poinsett’s “discovery,” and suggested the plant be named the poinsettia.

While in Mexico, Poinsett became involved in the turbulent politics of the country. He backed Vicente Guerrero as president, and supported the career of General Manuel Victoria, who would be disastrously appointed as governor of Alta California in 1830.

Poinsett was accused of meddling. He was ultimately recalled as minister to Mexico at the request of an angry Mexican government.

His career in American politics was not hurt by the recall. In 1837, President Martin Van Buren appointed Poinsett as his secretary of war. In that position, Poinsett continued President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies that had led to the Trail of Tears.

Perhaps the Aztecs were correct in seeing “blood” in the red blossoms of Poinsett’s flower.

You and I can still enjoy the annual appearance of “flor de nochbuena.”