Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

The Man Behind the Flower

A yuletide legacy belongs to South Carolina Statesman Joel Poinsett.

by Bill Weekes

The British call it Mexican flameleaf. The Mexicans call it la flor de noche buena, or "Christmas Eve Flower." The Swedish label it julstjarna, "Christmas Star."

To Americans, it's the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), that cheery, cherry-leafed holiday house plant with which we rub elbows at festive parties and nostalgic yuletide gatherings.

The poinsettia is named after the man who discovered the plant and brought it home to us for Christmas nearly 170 years ago. He was a statesman, a Renaissance man - but a man buried in history: Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Literally a child of the American Revolution, Poinsett was born in Charleston on March 2, 1779. He was a restless youth, attending medical school and studying - uninspired - law. He discovered an early passion: travel. Always frail and sickly, he found that travel invigorated him. In 1801, his father let him tour Europe and eastern Asia, which took him several years. The experience proved invaluable.

Poinsett emerged as the most versatile and traveled American of his day. Fluent in five languages, serving under five presidents, a voracious reader, he conversed with the likes of Napoleon and became a favorite of Czar Alexander I.

As special agent for President Madison in 1810-16, he encouraged Argentina's provisional government to declare independence. He aided junta leaders in Chili in fashioning a constitution similar to that of the Americans and personally helped rescue 11 American whalers from Peruvian privateers.

Our nation's first ambassador to Mexico and Martin Van Buren's secretary of war, Poinsett spearheaded the eventual establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, updated military weaponry, expanded the operation of West Point and sought universal military training. Briefly a US congressman, he was a staunch believer in democracy and a strong central government. He championed freedom over dictatorship in South America, where he was accused of meddling. In fact, Mexicans coined the word poinsettismo to mean "high-handed, intrusive activity."

After his adventures in South America, Poinsett returned home to serve two terms in the legislature (1816-20). While there, he updated the state's transportation system, building a state highway from coast to mountains. The highway included a project Poinsett himself laid out that still stands as one of the few monuments to his memory: Poinsett Bridge, completed in 1820.

 

POINSETT COLLECTED cultural and horticultural artifacts the world over. He's best remembered for what he pulled out of a Mexican swamp. In 1826, while ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett brought home the plant that today bears his name. He little realized this pivotal deed would elevate his name to household word status every December.

Poinsett also brought home red and yellow mimosa and the Mexican rose, a hibiscus capable of changing from white to pink in a single day. His interest in crops everywhere led him to advocate growing such species as grapes, cork, camphor and flax in the South. He often sent Mexican species to botanical gardens in the US.

Agriculture was a mania to Poinsett. He believed it to be the highest calling for any human. When not on government assignment, he would frequent gardens at home near Charleston or at his wife's estate near Georgetown, experimenting with composts, crop rotation and diversification for better yields in hemp, peas, clover and rice, and with raising sheep and cattle for meat and clothing. He exchanged seeds with agriculturalists the world over and asked friends to bring fruits, vegetables and shrubs from other countries to see how they would grow here. Poinsett died in Stateburg at the home of his doctor on December 12, 1851 - a time when his namesake flower was coming into its own once again. His was a life of travel, service and scienti-fic experimentation. He was buried at the Church of the Holy Cross. A do-zen miles south of the 200-year-old church, Poinsett State Park honors his memory. Befittingly, it contains abundant, di-verse plant and animal life - elements Poinsett would have found engrossing.

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