upon a time in Mexico,
a little boy was walking to church on Christmas Eve. He wanted to
see the Nativity scene. He thought hard about a gift to bring the
Christ child, but had no money to buy one. "Jesus will understand,"
thought the little boy stopping to gather a few bare weedy branches
lying at the side of the dusty road, "because my gift will be given
When the little boy reached his destination, people already in the
church turned to see what gift he had brought. When they saw the
bare branches, they laughed at him.
As the little boy trudged up to the altar and laid the branches
by the edge of the manger, there suddenly began to bloom an abundance
of bright red flowers.
Perhaps this story is a fairy tale. Perhaps not. Who is to say?
It's certainly true that the Poinsettia originated in the south
wending its way to the United States of America in the admiring
custody of one Joel Roberts Poinsett.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), was born in Charleston South
Carolina, and educated in Europe and the U.S., studying medicine,
military strategy, and the law. He became a member of South Carolina's
House of Representatives, and subsequently held many prominent political
positions. He also spearheaded the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.
Fluency in Spanish (as well as French, Italian and German) resulted
in Poinsett's diplomatic appointment by President John Quincy Adams
as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (then called Minister
That was a tumultuous time in Mexico,
and, to make matters even more difficult, Poinsett's impossible
task was to offer Mexico a million dollars to buy what is now the
State of Texas. However, the Mexicans did not want to sell Texas
and, in 1829, they invited the hapless Ambassador Poinsett to leave.
In 1828, shortly before his absence was requested, Poinsett, an
avid amateur botanist, was visiting the state of Taxco where he
first saw the plant that would eventually be named after him. He
shipped samples to South Carolina, where they were called "Painted
Leaf" and sometimes "Mexican Fire Plant." The Aztecs had called
the plant "Cuetlaxochitl," and from the 14th-Century to the 16th,
used the sap to control fevers. The leaves were also used to make
dye. Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, was forced to have
Poinsettias caravaned from the south into what now is Mexico City
because the plant could not grow in such high altitudes.
Upon his return to the U.S., Poinsett generously shared the plant
with friends and botanical gardens everywhere.
Around 1836, scholar William Hickline Prescott, author of The History
of the Conquest of Mexico, and after whom the town of Prescott Arizona
is named, was given the honor of renaming the plant. It has been
known as Poinsettia ever since.
Yes, these facts are interesting, but some of us prefer the tale
of a little Mexican boy and the miracle of The Christmas Flower.
"A Balloon In Cactus"
3, 2007 column