The Adventures of Joel Poinsett

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on December 22, 2011

I've come to realize that as far as plants are concerned, this time of year belongs as much to the poinsettia as it does to the Christmas tree. It pops up everywhere and in ever-changing variations. There is the basic red, the white, and now pink and cream, all pink, red and cream, and even a double red pompom variety.

2011-12-22/LarryR/4fd0e2I wondered how this poinsettia passion ever got started and decided to find out. I knew that the plant was named after a man whose last name was Poinsett. But who was he? It turns out that Mr. Poinsett led a very interesting life.

Born in March of 1779 to wealthy, aristocratic parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Joel Roberts Poinsett spent part of his childhood in England. While there—and back at home as well—his parents saw to it that he received a very thorough education from the best private tutors. He excelled in medicine, the law, and military strategy, but his somewhat delicate health prevented him from attending either private schools or a university.

Somewhere in the course of his early adulthood, his health must have improved considerably. In all the years that I’ve been reading about early botanists who had an impact on modern gardening, I’ve never come across one who traveled as widely or as much. And in those days, traveling on an ocean-going vessel was no picnic, to say nothing of overland trips in hostile territory.


Joel Roberts Poinsett

In 1800 we find Poinsett back in Charleston where he planned to pursue a military career. That ambition didn’t sit well with his father, who wanted him to settle down in Charleston and become a lawyer. The elder Poinsett won the contest of wills, and his son agreed to study law under the tutelage of a prominent lawyer in town. In fairly short order, though, young Poinsett declared once again that he had no interest in the least in becoming a lawyer and finally convinced his parents to fund an extended tour of Europe.

In 1801 he set sail for the European continent, spending a good deal of time in France. The following year finds him on the road to Italy via the Alps and Switzerland. After visiting Naples and the island of Sicily, he returned to Switzerland, staying at the home of a prominent Swiss banker and statesman and his daughter, a well-known European author. These visits to people of high repute characterized his travels and afforded him with important political and social contacts. He also learned a lot about what was happening politically and socially in the countries he visited.

At this point in reading about Poinsett’s life, I began to think that he was just another rich kid having a good time on mom and dad’s bank account. In December of 1803, after spending some time in Vienna and Munich, he received word that his father had died and that his sister, Susan, was gravely ill. He booked passage immediately for a return trip to the U.S., arriving well past the date of his father’s funeral, but early enough to take care of his sister. He even took her to New York, hoping that she would find recovery there, but she died just as they arrived.

Poinsett suddenly found himself the sole heir of his family’s fortune.

In the fall of 1808 Poinsett crossed the Atlantic once more—this time to Russia—arriving in St. Petersburg in November. He managed to finagle an audience with Czar Alexander, who was impressed with Poinsett’s knowledge and intrepid spirit. Before he actually met the Czar, however, Empress Maria- Alexandrovna learned that Poinsett was from South Carolina and assumed that he must therefore have some knowledge of cotton factories. She was concerned about poor cotton production in Russia and asked him to inspect existing factories and report back to her. He did offer a few minor suggestions, but his private opinion was that since the workers were serfs and received no compensation, they had no personal stake in the cotton enterprise and thus the factories would continue to have production problems.

At the start of the new year, Poinsett finally got his audience with Czar Alexander. They dined together at the Czar’s Palace, where Poinsett found Alexander anxious to engage him in Russia’s civil or military service. Knowing how fond Poinsett was of adventure and travel, Alexander sweetened the deal by offering to prepare him for the job by sponsoring a trip through Russia to “see the Empire, acquire the language, and study the people.” Given his nature, that was an offer Poinsett definitely could not refuse.


Roughly the boundaries of the area covered during Poinsett's trip (Click to enlarge)

In March of 1807, Poinsett, with a party of nine, departed St. Petersburg for an expedition through southern Russia. He traveled first to Moscow and was one of the last westerners to see the beautiful city before its destruction by Napoleon’s army. Traveling a short distance from Moscow to the Volga River, the party boarded a boat that eventually carried them all the way south to the city of Astrakhan, a distance of about 900 miles. Astrakhan is situated at the mouth of the Volga, where it flows into the Caspian Sea. This area was one of the gateways to the Caucasus region (roughly southern Russia, modern day Azerbaijan, Georgia, northern Iran, and Turkey).

From here Poinsett and his entourage entered territory that had only recently been acquired by Russia and was populated by a very diverse group of peoples. Ethnic conflict raged in many areas, making travel extremely dangerous. Negotiating with Tartar chieftains, Poinsett secured protection for his entourage. The tartar guards increased the number of his party, which he reasoned, would lessen the chance of attack. They were also joined by a Persian merchant who had “acquired” young girls from nearby Circassia and was transporting them to harems in Turkey.

As they entered the territory of the Kahn of Kuban, a tribal chief stole some of the Poinsett party’s horses. True to form, Poinsett detoured from his charted route, going directly to the court of the Kahn to demand his horses back. He took the Kahn—who had never seen foreigners the likes of Poinsett before—by surprise. The Kahn had no idea of the existence of the United States either, and he fired a barrage of questions at Poinsett. The latter took advantage of the Kahn’s lack of knowledge and described the U.S. at length in grand, sweeping, geographical terms that impressed the Kahn greatly. He characterized President Thomas Jefferson as the Grand Shah of the country.

Having laid the groundwork as only Poinsett could, he broached the subject of the stolen horses. The theft would reflect badly on the Kahnate, he offered. So taken was the Kahn with Poinsett’s rhetoric, that Poinsett not only got his horses back, but was offered the head of the chieftain who stole them. Poinsett wisely chose to pardon the thief.

Next time: The conclusion of Poinsett’s adventures and, finally, why he is associated with the poinsettia.



Photos are courtesy of and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Related articles:
botany, horticulture, Poinsett, poinsettia

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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