The Painted Leaf
March 2, 1779
Today is the birthday of the physician, botanist, and American statesman, Joel Roberts Poinsett.
In the 1820s, President John Quincy Adams appointed Joel to serve as a US ambassador in Mexico. Joel was introduced to a beautiful plant that the Aztecs called the cuetlaxochitl (“qwet-la-SHO-chee-til”) but today it's better known as the Poinsettia.
The Aztecs used to extract a purple dye from the Poinsettia, which they used for decorative purposes. Like euphorbias, the Poinsettia has a white sap that the Aztecs used that white sap to treat wounds, skin diseases, and fever which is how it got the common name “Skin Flower.” The Aztecs also used the leaves of the Poinsettia to make a tea to increase breast milk in nursing mothers. In warm climates like Mexico, the poinsettia grows year-round and can grow up to 16 feet tall.
In 1825, when Joel Poinsett sent clippings back home to South Carolina, botanists had new common names for the plant: “the Mexican Fire Plant” or “the Painted Leaf.”
The botanist Karl Wilenow (“Vill-ah-no”) named the Poinsettia the Euphorbia pulcherrima. Pulcherrima means “very beautiful.”
And already in 1836, English newspapers were reporting about the Poinsettia in great detail:
"Poinsettia Pulcherrima, the bracts which surround the numerous flowers, are of the most brilliant rosy-crimson color, the splendor of which is quite dazzling. Few, if any of the most highly valued beauties of our gardens, can vie with this.
Indeed, when we take into consideration the profuse manner in which it flowers, the luxuriance of its foliage, and the long duration of the bracts, we are not aware of any plant more deserving in all select collections than this lovely and highly prized stranger."
Every year, on December 12th, the day Joel Poinsett died, we celebrate National Poinsettia Day.