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Where did poinsettias come from?

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As the holiday season gets under way, from time to time we will post short pieces on various holiday traditions, today, we begin with that ever-popular and omnipresent poinsettia.

Perhaps nothing is as ubiquitous during the holiday season as the poinsettia. As part of our ongoing series of the history of holiday traditions, we pose the question: where do poinsettias come from?

Poinsettias come from Mexico originally. According to the University of Illinois Extension Service website, the Aztecs called the poinsettia, “Cuetlaxochitl” and during the 14th-16th centuries, the sap was used to control fevers and the leaves were used to make a reddish dye. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, had poinsettias brought into Mexico City because they would not grow in the high altitude.

The first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a native of Charleston, is responsible for bringing the poinsettia to this country. In 1828, while in Mexico, he found a shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse. Even though he had a distinguished career as a Congressman and ambassador he will always be remembered for bringing the poinsettia to the United States. There is a plaque in the SC State House commemorating Poinsett and his holiday contribution.

It was historian and horticulturist William Prescott who gave the plant its name. As it was becoming more popular, Prescott was asked to give it a name, the poinsettia’s botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. Prescott had just published a book, History of The Conquest of Mexico in which he detailed Poinsett’s discovery. He named the plant in Poinsett’s honor.

In the early 1900s the Ecke family of southern California grew poinsettias outdoors for use as landscape plants and as a cut flower. Eventually the family grew them in greenhouses and were recognized as the leading producer of poinsettias in the United States. In 2012, the family sold the business to a Dutch concern, Agrebio.

So, when you see a poinsettia at a holiday party, or on display at places such as the Hampton-Preston Mansion, while they may be raised in California, remember that it was a South Carolinian, Joel Poinsett, who first discovered them.

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