|Blooms in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History|
Our friends at The Biodiversity Heritage Library asked this question in social media last year and offered up vibrant, joyful portraits of the amaryllis instead. But one commentator declared “Poinsettias rule!” And indeed poinsettias do reign as an economic powerhouse of the nursery industry, cultivated all over the world. The public areas of the various Smithsonian museums and the neighboring Botanic Gardens on the Mall in Washington now have abundant, seasonal displays of poinsettias, beautiful specimens propagated by the talented horticulturists of the Federal greenhouses. The palette of colors and shapes are wonderful, never a dull sight this time of year.
|The Smithsonian Castle (made up entirely of plant materials) nestled in the display of poinsettias in the Garden Court of the United States Botanic Garden|
|Lithograph and cut paper on paper portrait of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1841, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.)|
As with other pagan rituals and symbols – think of winter greenery (pine, holly, mistletoe), of wreaths and trees brought indoors and the yule log – the star-shaped flower was incorporated into Christmas celebrations. In particular, it had a role in the nativity procession of the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. After the Conquest, with Spanish missionaries in Mexico, the plant became known as “Flore de Noche Buena” or “Flower of the Holy Night” (Christmas Eve).
|Hand-colored engraving by Samuel Curtis. Curtis's Botanical magazine. Digitized image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, copy supplied by the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden|
|The growth in the commercial trade of the poinsettia can be traced in nursery catalogs. There are a great number in the trade literature collection of the National Museum of American History Library. This title page is courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized from a copy in the National Agricultural Library.|
|Studies of Poinsettias, Sophia L. Crownfield, drawing, early 20th century (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection; gift of Starling W. Childs and Ward Cheney)|
Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Institution Libraries