The Palmetto State & Joel Poinsett

Jadie from over at Boone Hall Farms stuck his head in the kitchen with one of the biggest,  happiest poinsettias I’d ever seen. “Hey man,” he says, “I brung ya some Christmas spirit!”

This time of year, red or white poinsettias become ubiquitous. Tradition states that in 16th century Mexico, an impoverished girl named Maria was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. From the weeds sprang scarlet blossoms in a star shaped leaf pattern symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, and the sacrifice of Jesus through crucifixion.

Believe it or not, the poinsettia’s place in holiday tradition is due in no small part to the efforts of a native South Carolinian- Joel Roberts Poinsett. Born in 1779 to a Huguenot physician and Englishwoman in Charleston, Joel was educated in England and Scotland, studying languages and medicine before returning to Charleston to briefly study law. In 1801, Poinsett returned to Europe where he spent the next 7 years travelling extensively across the Continent and as far as Persia. During his travels, he made several notable associations including Napoleon 1, Czar Alexander 1 and the Khan of Kuban.

After returning to the States in 1808, he was named U.S. Trade Envoy to South America by President James Madison. He promoted trade and, at times, instigated rebellion. He would stay in Latin America through 1814, eventually returning to Charleston to be elected to the General Assembly in 1816.

Over the course of the next decade, Poinsett would represent South Carolina in Congress, eventually being named U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1825 by President James Monroe. It was as a result of this time that he introduced the poinsettia to South Carolina. He would return to South Carolina at the height of the Nullification Crisis, opposing John C. Calhoun and serving as a confidential agent for President Andrew Jackson. After the crisis, he served as U.S. Secretary of War under President Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841, significantly expanding and improving upon our nation’s army.

Joel Poinsett spent his later years on both his Greenville District farm and his wife’s plantation in Santee, near Georgetown. He would spend his retirement advocating education and the weaning of Southern life away from slavery. In 1844, he was elected to the National Institute, a forerunner to the Smithsonian Institution.

So Jadie brung me some Christmas cheer, and a little holiday Palmetto spirit to boot. If you haven’t been out to Boone Hall Farms, it’s a pretty fantastic visit. This time of year, the Boone Hall Farms Market is probably overflowing with those same happy poinsettias and the cafe features, among other Lowcountry favorites, a crab, pimento cheese and fried green tomato melt. If that’s not reason enough for a visit, then I probably can’t help you.

Merry Christmas!


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