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December: Joel Poinsett

Since mid-June, the main crop on our nursery has been the Poinsettia, 1,500 of them for the Christmas festive season and many millions more are being produced and sold throughout the world. As I was tending my crop of Poinsettia, I got to thinking about the man who gave his name to this most important plant - Joel Poinsett. A few days later when throwing out some old papers I found an article from an American trade magazine “Grower Talks” by Roy Larson that I reprint here. I hope you find it as interesting as I have.

The poinsettia was originally named in honour of Joel R. Poinsett who was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. During his ambassadorial stint he saw the plant in its native habitat and in 1825 sent several specimens back to South Carolina and Philadelphia.

What sort of man was Joel Poinsett? Was he worthy of a recognition that almost gives him immortality? He died over 150 year ago but his name will be spoken and written more in the 2009 Christmas season than it probably was in his entire lifetime. I did a literature search on Joel Poinsett and concluded he was almost as complex as the crop. Though always confronted with poor health, he took rigorous trips abroad including a seven-year journey through Europe and Western Asia. Though very much a diplomat – he was the first ambassador to Mexico – he almost got himself shot by angry soldiers when he encouraged the citizenry to protest their oppression.

Ironically it was on Christmas Day 1829 that he officially left Mexico after the government asked for his recall because of his involvement in political affairs. The only cabinet officer appointed by President Martin Van Buren during his four years in office was the secretary of war. Joel R. Poinsett was that appointee. He probably was the most qualified secretary of war we had in early U.S. history because he received much of his education in Europe on military science. He almost doubled the size of the army (from 7,958 – 12,577 men) and was responsible for almost three dozen improvements in artillery weapons.

Poinsett owned slaves but was opposed to slavery. He was regarded as a compassionate slave master; his slaves lived in whitewashed homes, shaded by peach trees with flower and vegetable gardens in each yard. The work day ended at 6pm. And the sick and elderly were treated with care.

Although his kindness to people was readily acknowledged he was the secretary of war when Indian tribes east of the Mississippi river were forced to migrate west on what has been called “The Trail of Tears”. He was responsible for many humanitarian acts during this time but he was also criticized for letting Colonel Zachery Taylor use bloodhounds to track escaped Seminole Indians in Florida. Poinsett defended the practice by stating the dogs were muzzled, leashed and used only to detect hiding Indians not to bite them.

His politics did not always find favour with other Palmetto State residents. He was opposed to slavery, to any thought of secession and to nullification, the proposed right of a state to nullify federal laws. He was a Unionist, a fitting role for the man whose name would be attached to a nationally renowned crop. Poinsett was a strong advocate of education and helped organise a scientific society that was a forerunner of the Smithsonian Institute.

His interest in the flower that eventually received his name was not superficial. He was an avid gardener and strongly encouraged people “to cherish this taste for gardening” because he believed it was one of the “purest and best” activities in which a person could engage. In 1846 he tried to persuade farmers to use irrigation in crop production. He believed the strong ties we had with England prevented Americans from installing such systems because England had little need for irrigation and England was our model.

An intelligent, progressive farmer, Joel Poinsett undoubtedly would be proud to know the plant named in his honour is perhaps the most investigated plant in the county. Though a well-qualified Secretary of War, he probably would be pleased that the plant named after him is associated with the season of peace.

Choose your Poinsettia with care. Avoid those that are offered for sale still wrapped as being enclosed in wrapping for too long will cause them to droop from which they may never recover. If possible, buy them from a nursery/garden centre where they have been grown.