When foil-wrapped poinsettias start to appear at the entrances of grocery stores and near the prosceniums of churches, you know the Christmas season has arrived. The plant’s beautiful red and green leaves are ever-present in holiday tableaux. This emblem of the season often comes with a warning: be careful with the plant if you have small children or pets. A persistent misconception is that consuming the colorful leaves can be fatal. The truth is, the poinsettia is only a mild irritant. Eating its leaves can result in a rash, vomiting, or diarrhea, but rarely anything worse. 

Poinsettia has a long, rich history in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs knew it as cuetlaxōchitl and used its vivid leaves to make dye. They also believed the sap had medicinal properties. Centuries later, in colonial Mexico, the plant became associated with Christmas, perhaps because of a folktale in which a peasant girl brings weeds to midnight mass as a gift for the baby Jesus. In the story, she’s ashamed to have nothing better to offer, but the weeds miraculously turn into poinsettias. Other possible reasons for the poinsettia’s Christmas ties include the star-shaped clusters of leaves, which some say evoke the Star of Bethlehem, and the red hue, said to represent the blood of Christ. At any rate, the plant has long been called la flor de nochebuena, or “Christmas Eve flower.” 

This backstory is fairly well-known. What you probably haven’t heard is the tale of the poinsettia’s namesake, Joel R. Poinsett, and the bumbling, meddlesome role he played in U.S. diplomacy shortly before Texas was founded. The first American minister to Mexico, he sent clippings of the plant back home (leading a botanist friend to name it in his honor). At the same time, he sowed seeds of discontent in Mexico, provoking a violent rebellion and becoming a case study in political overreach.

Born to a wealthy family in South Carolina, Poinsett studied law, served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was fluent in many languages. He was a fierce believer in American-style democracy and was extremely well traveled for the time, exploring much of Europe and as far as the court of Czar Alexander I of Russia. In the 1810s he had just taken a diplomatic tour through South America, from which he reported back to James Madison’s administration on the goings-on in various Spanish holdings. Of special interest were those territories that might be inclined to rebel against the Spanish crown. While in South America, he sung the praises of democracy and the American political system, something he would do nearly everywhere he went. 

This South American trip foreshadowed Poinsett’s interventionist approach to diplomacy. In Chile, for example, where ostensibly he was sent to observe and report, Poinsett became so enamored with the independence movement, and so dedicated to encouraging its pull from what he saw as despotic monarchism, that he not only helped independence fighters draft a proposed constitution but for a time commanded troops in the Chilean army—hardly proper for a diplomat. When the war started going badly for the group Poinsett fought with, he was ejected from Chile and returned to the United States. Back home, Poinsett represented South Carolina in the House of Representatives for a few years, but before long, two presidents (first James Monroe, and then John Quincy Adams) saw fit to send him to Mexico, first in an observing role, in 1822, and then as an official envoy, in 1825, when his diplomatic legacy really began. His orders were to promote unencumbered trade with the U.S., as well as to support the Monroe Doctrine and the American system of governance. Arguably his most important directive, though, was to broker a deal for the U.S. to buy Texas from Mexico. But he never really got around to that, making such a mess of local politics that he was recalled first.

When Poinsett arrived in Mexico, the political situation was tumultuous. Mexico had only recently achieved independence from Spain, in 1821. Since then, the young nation had elevated a general from the war for independence to the position of emperor; deposed and exiled him; executed him when he returned from exile; and finally elected its first president. 

Around this same time, Stephen F. Austin brought three hundred families to an area of Mexico called Texas. Austin was an empresario, or a government agent whose job was to promote immigration, and his colony along the Brazos River thrived, prompting thousands more settlers to move to Texas in the coming years. A family of four could buy a 1,280-acre parcel for just 12.5 cents per acre. Austin was loyal to the Mexican government at the time, but as more Anglos settled the area, factions developed. Some settlers believed that Texas should be a member of the union rather than part of Mexico, despite previous treaties with Spain ensuring that the U.S. would not extend west of the Sabine River.

With rumblings of Texas independence having already reached Mexico City, Poinsett was regarded with suspicion almost as soon as he arrived. He began to get wrapped up in Mexico’s domestic political turmoil. The struggle in Mexican politics after independence, and indeed for much of the nineteenth century, was between conservative and liberal factions. The conservatives, though eager to shrug off the yoke of empire, were still amenable to the old system, in which a monarch and the church reigned supreme, and society remained starkly hierarchical. The liberals embraced the modern ideals of equality, rule by the people, human rights, and secular government. 

Poinsett, a representative of the still-young American republic, naturally sympathized with the liberals. One way he supported the liberal cause and continued his promotion of American republicanism was through his involvement in Freemasonry. Masonic lodges were already popular and widespread in Mexico, but most were of the conservative-leaning Scottish Rite. Poinsett worried that the considerable influence of Scottish Rite lodges would lead to the reestablishment of monarchism in Mexico. He couldn’t let that happen, so he acquired Mexican charters for liberal York Rite lodges. 

As a result of Poinsett’s influence, the York Rite lodges were seen as American-leaning. The followers of each lodge were known as Escoceses (conservatives) and Yorkinos (liberals). The secretive nature of Freemasonry, paired with the lack of a tradition of political parties, led the two groups to split up into a bitter, suspicious partisanship. Freemasons interacted with each other more like enemy combatants than fellow citizens.

Poinsett publicly bemoaned the unintended politicization of Freemasonry, but in letters to his boss, Secretary of State Henry Clay, he boasted of his influence in fostering liberal opposition to Mexican conservatives. No matter what Poinsett said publicly, the eventual result of the discord between the two groups was that the vice president of Mexico, a leader of the Escoceses, mounted an armed rebellion, fueled by fears that the Yorkinos would destroy the country. The situation became such a mess that in 1829, the Mexican government essentially kicked Poinsett out of the country, begging President Andrew Jackson to send the failed diplomat home.

It was just one of many times when violent force, instead of the rule of law, would decide who governed. Over the next fifty years, the Mexican presidency changed hands more than fifty times. About a decade after Poinsett’s escapades, Texas would successfully win its revolution, but many historians credit the internal turmoil in Mexico as a contributing cause of its inability to maintain its northern holdings. 

As for Poinsett, he failed upward, becoming secretary of war and playing a key role in the Trail of Tears, the brutal march that forcibly displaced more than 60,000 Native Americans. Today some Mexican poinsettia growers and gardeners are reclaiming the plant’s history by once again calling it by its Nahuatl name, cuetlaxōchitl.

In America, Poinsett is not remembered for his blundering role in Mexican affairs. If he’s known at all, it’s for a cheerful red-and-green plant that Americans buy by the millions in December and then unceremoniously send to the dump in January. In Mexico, he’s remembered as a bit of a fool. They even have a word for his brand of meddling, interventionist Yankee: poinsettismo.