How Joel Poinsett, the Namesake for the Poinsettia, Played a Role in Creating the Smithsonian

As a major scientific scholar in 19th-century America, the botanist and statesman was the first to argue the Smithsonian should be a national museum

John Poinsett
John Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) Library of Congress

It's that time of year, and the Smithsonian Institution is leaving no corner undecorated for the holidays. Garlands spiral up the banisters of several Smithsonian museums, and Douglas fir trees tower inside the museum entrances. At the very least, almost every Smithsonian building has what is perhaps the most ubiquitous holiday decoration: the poinsettia.

According to Monty Holmes of the Smithsonian Gardens, the horticulture team has grown some 1,700 poinsettias this year. With so many of the plants under his care, Holmes began investigating the original connection between it and the holidays. Surprisingly, he discovered a little-known link between the poinsettia and the Smithsonian.

As it turns out, the red-leafed plant was introduced to the United States by botanist and statesman Joel Poinsett (1779-1851), who as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico found the plant while serving there. The poinsettia is said to have been used by the Aztecs as a red dye and to reduce fevers.

And what was its connection to the Smithsonian?

Poinsett was a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, which formed in 1840 to promote the study of natural history and physical sciences, among other fields. It is thought that the organization was founded with the intention of securing the James Smithson bequest. (Although Smithson had never visited the United States, he left his estate of $508,318—about $15 million in today's dollars—to establish in Washington, D.C. an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge.") At the time, much debate was going on about how best to achieve Smithson's request.


Poinsettias at the Smithsonian

When Poinsett was United States Secretary of War in 1838, he presided over the United States Exploring Expedition, the first circumnavigation of the globe sponsored by the United States.

"He insisted when this global exploring expedition went out that it included scientists," says Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson of Poinsett. "They collected geological, biological, anthropological specimens throughout the trip. They were called 'scientifics.'"

The artifacts collected on that expedition were brought back to Washington, D.C. and put on display much like a modern-day museum exhibition at the Patent Office building (currently home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery). The exhibition was presided over by Poinsett's National Institution. Poinsett was among dozens of who had strident convictions on how the money ought to be used; some thought it should be a library, others hoped it would support scientific research. But Poinsett was the first to argue that Smithson's money should be used to create a national museum.

"He basically interjected the concept of creating a national museum into the debate surrounding what to do with Smithson's money," says Henson. "He never succeeded in getting the money, but his push was what lead to the concept of the museum being part of the Smithsonian."

As you peruse the halls of the Smithsonian Institution this Christmas, counting the poinsettias, remember Joel Poinsett, who planted the seed for the creation of a national museum.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.