The Poinsettia’s Lowcountry Roots

Known as the December birth flower, poinsettias have long symbolized good cheer and success and are said to bring wishes of merriment and celebration across the world during the holiday season. But what many might not know is that the plant was named for one of the Lowcountry’s very own.

Born in Charleston in 1799, Joel Roberts Poinsett was a politician by profession and a botanist by passion. Serving as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico from 1825-1830, Poinsett often collected and cultivated plant specimens during his world travels. On one particular trip to Mexico, Poinsett discovered a bright green and red, star-shaped plant that the Mexicans called the “Flor de Noche Buena,” or Flower of the Holy Night, where it is considered the prized Christmas Eve flower.

Upon his return to South Carolina, Poinsett successfully cultivated the plant and began sharing the shrubs with friends and colleagues, quickly earning international recognition from renowned botanists and leading horticulturalists. By 1835, Europeans coined the plant “Euphorbia Poinsettia,” in honor of the South Carolinian’s triumphs. And Poinsett’s political success aided in the poinsettia’s rise in popularity in the U.S. in the 1840s, when First Lady Sarah Childress Polk adorned her inaugural ball gown with a poinsettia pattern to honor Poinsett’s political support in the election of her husband, President James K. Polk.

Today, the poinsettia is a holiday staple across the world, used to spread joy and merriment as festive décor or as a thoughtful gift. Many Christians compare the shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves to the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus, and the bright, red- and green-colored leaves are thought to symbolize the colors of Christmas.

So with all that is merry and bright, deck your halls with poinsettias this holiday season, remembering our Lowcountry native who started it all.