clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The case to rename this famous Christmas plant

Why the story of the poinsettia is a troubling one.

Ranjani Chakraborty is a lead video producer on the Vox video team and the creator behind Vox’s history series, Missing Chapter.

Depending on where you live, there is one plant that you can spot anywhere during the winter holiday season (outside of, well, Christmas trees): poinsettias. It was named for the first US minister to Mexico: Joel Poinsett. In Mexico, Poinsett saw the plant — called cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs and with a long history of use in the region — and shipped some cuttings back to the US.

Many around the world started calling the plant “poinsettia” to celebrate Poinsett’s legacy. But that legacy is a troubling one. Poinsett was an enslaver and a firm believer in American expansion, and during his tenure as secretary of war he oversaw the displacement of thousands of Native Americans. In his role as minister to Mexico, he meddled so much in local politics that he was asked to leave the country.

Because of that history — and the fact that the US still corners the lucrative poinsettia market while restricting their imports from Mexico — many people today reject the name poinsettia in favor of the plant’s Native name, cuetlaxochitl. Check out the video above for more on how the US got the poinsettia.

This video is part of Missing Chapter, our series on hidden histories, now on its third season.