Widely admired and cultivated in many lands, Euphorbia pulcherria is best known north of the Rio Grande as……..?

Quick! What’s Mexican in origin, American by name, sometimes misunderstood and red all over?

Hint: this item is leafy and often called a flower, which it’s not, and was once thought to be poisonous, which it isn’t. And it’s a best-seller at Christmas, the season of peace, while named after a Secretary of War.

Answer: the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherria, a favorite of Aztec king Montezuma and in English named after diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American botanist and ambassador to Mexico who first introduced it to the US from Mexico in the 1820’s.

Mexicans today call the poinsettia “la flor de Nochebuena,” or Holy Night (Christmas Eve) flower, but in fact the poinsettia is a plant, and its brightly colored parts are its bracts, or modified leaves. Montezuma decked the halls of his various palaces with poinsettias, something he wouldn’t have done, presumably, had he thought the plants dangerously toxic. But for decades people in the United States thought eating poinsettia leaves would kill you, until tests finally proved the pretty potted plant safe for household use. This the Aztecs knew; they used the milky sap of the ponsettia — what they called cuetlaxochitl — to counteract fever, and the bright leaves as a source for red dye.

Poinsett was taken by the crimson-colored plant when he first saw it near Taxco, here in the state of Guererro. He sent cuttings back to horticulturist friends in the States, where the plant’s popularity quickly spread. Today the poinsettia is the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada, and represents 85% of all potted plant sales over the Christmas season.

But Poinsett’s main purpose in Mexico went beyond collecting exotic botanicals; he was America’s numero uno here at an important time in Mexican–American history. Mexico had gained independence from Spain in 1821 and, in formal recognition of the new state, U.S. president John Quincy Adams sent Poinsett off to Mexico City as America’s first ambassador to the new republic.

Poinsett was well prepared for his new posting. Enjoying all the benefits of an upper-class birth on a South Carolina plantation, Poinsett studied medicine, law and military science in the U.S. before leaving for an eight-year trek across Europe and Asia. He returned to his homeland fluent in four languages and a dedicated botanist; he brought with him crateloads of exotic plants gathered from the far corners of the world.

Poinsett won election to Congress in 1821, having earlier spent four years reporting to Washington on South American affairs and publishing a tract on the 11-year Mexican independence struggle. In recognition of his works in the public interest Columbia University awarded Poinsett an honorary doctorate of law in 1825.

That same year, on his arrival as first minister, Poinsett found Mexico in political crisis. The independence war won, battles between opposing Mexican political factions were just heating up; there was a new constitution but interpretations of it varied. Poinsett, of liberal disposition and representing the democratic, republican interests of expanding American power, soon ran afoul of conservative Mexican political players still intensely loyal to authoritarian values and old-regime monarchist institutions. America was also largely Protestant; Mexico overwhelmingly Catholic. Poinsett’s subtle encouragement and soft-peddling of Protestant Freemasonry into Mexico spelled his political end in Latin America. He was recalled to Washington in 1830.

Poinsett went on to complete more terms of public service, including a stint (1837-41) as Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren. In the 1840’s his efforts on behalf of science and exploration contributed to the later founding of the Smithsonian Institution.

Poinsett died on December 12th,1851, and by an Act of Congress that date is designated National Poinsettia Day in the U.S. Fittingly, probably more poinsettias are sold in Mexico on the anniversary of Poinsett’s death than on any other day of the year, as the red plant is prominently displayed in celebration of the December 12th Dia de la Virgen.

Poinsettia, “la flor de Nochebuena” or cuetlaxochitl — call it what you will, along with a strong sun and gentle warm breezes, it’s Mexico’s gift to the world at Christmas.

-Originally published December 2005