National Poinsettia Day and Cuttings to Carry into the Future

December 12, 2015

Thank you Joel Roberts Poinsett for bringing this brilliant red and green explosion of color and such a perfect plant to represent the colors of the Christmas season to our northern climes! Upon learning that today was National Poinsettia Day, I set forth to learn a bit about why…P1110598

You too can Google it, but in a nutshell, back in the early 1800s, this observant amateur botanist was our first Ambassador to the new Republic of Mexico! Not to mention, his day job was that of a doctor and a soldier! Busy well-rounded guy it seems!

Poinsett sent cuttings of this spectacular and exotic flowering plant from where he was visiting in the Taxco region of Mexico, to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Once he returned to Charleston, he spread the joy and sent other clippings of his magnificent discovery to friends including a Mr. Buist in Philadelphia who gave a piece to Mr. James McNab who took it to the Botanical Garden of Edinburgh, Scotland founded in 1670. (From “Paxton’s Magazine of Botany” 1837)

The initial botanical name Euphorbia pulcherrima was actually assigned by a German botanist, Wilenow, in 1833, but within 4 years it was renamed Poinsettia Pucherrima by William Hickling Prescott a historian and gardener who had been asked, by someone in authority, to rename it. He did so by selecting to honor Joel Poinsett for his numerous achievements in both government and horticulture.

This dramatic flowering plant comes in many colors – the familiar and original red to creamy off-whites, chartreuse, pinks and various variegated versions such as this fabulous marbled specimen called strawberries and cream.strawberries n cream poinsettia

Poinsett retired from his career in public service as Secretary of War in 1841. He became one of the founders of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful – which later became the Smithsonian Institute. I was born in D.C. and raised inside the Beltway and never knew that the Smithsonian which was a memorably mandatory field trip nearly every year of my childhood, was originally named the wordy National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful – but it certainly describes it all in one fell swoop!!

There are many legends and folk stories centering around this “flor de Nochebuena” in Mexico but the thread of this story that has personal interest to me is that the same poinsettia cutting taken to Edinburgh by James McNab is still producing and flowering annually in the Royal Botanical Garden in Scotland to this day.

As I read this history, I was excited about this remarkable tracing of the original cuttings.  In our family we have what my grandmother , Dee Dee, always referred to as “the family cactus.” This rounded, smooth leafed variation (some have pointy, spiked leaves)with its hot pink blooms is our cactus.P1110601

Dee Dee, Anna Ives Wagner, was born in 1892 in Youngstown, New York.  She arrived at our house to live with us in the late 1950s. She brought with her a very special plant. It was a cutting off of the original plant that was in her ancestral home – the Root Home, Twin Pines – 830 River Road – then Main Street, Youngstown.

Dee Dee remembered that plant from her childhood and had heard from her mother and aunts that it was there in theirs as well – which without complicated math puts it in the house since the mid 1800s. Unfortunately we don’t know when it started…but the house dates back to our great, great, great grandfather, Dr. Benjamin Root c.1840. The house stayed in our family, passing finally to my  grandmother’s aunt Helen Root who lived there with an original cutting of the plant until the 1950s when she moved to Elmira with her niece and her husband, Edith and Ray Hulbert.

We grew-up with the family cactus bursting forth with wild fuscia blooms every fall into winter. It was always an exciting and exotic flowering extravaganza in the colder dark months of the season. It brought a sense of life, growth, and color that was a spectacular contrast to the otherwise drab, dull, dormancy of winter.P1110609

I guard my plants, given to me as a cutting by Dee Dee when I first moved to New Mexico, with great responsibility and appreciation.

Last year my Mother’s large family cactus withered before our very eyes…she was so protective of it that she perhaps neglected to give it new soil and nutrients instead favoring watering a bit too much which  resulted in its demise. As she witnessed and worried about the failing plant, we carefully cultivated clippings and as weak and depleted as they were – nurtured them in water losing a couple but saving a few so that they now are flourishing in a clay pot in a window with the soft daylight of  northern exposure displaying a resiliency, hope, and celebration of life that continues to greet each day. Perhaps  metaphors for procreation, family traditions, aging in place…

My mother is 93 and her mother, Dee Dee, lived to be three weeks shy of her 101st birthday.

Joel Poinsett died on December 12, 1851 at the age of 72 – one hundred and sixty four years ago today! Happy Poinsettia Day!! Merry Christmas Joel Poinsett!




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