Skip to content

what to call poinsettia

William Jackson Hooker
Hand-colored engraving
from Samuel Curtis (1799-1860)
Curtis’s botanical magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed
London: Printed by Stephen Couchman for W. Curtis, 1836.

I have heard that we should no longer use the name poinsettia for the plant that is popular during the Christmas season, and instead use its Indigenous name. What’s the story behind the plant’s common name?

The plant’s Nahuatl name is Cuetlaxóchitl, meaning ‘a flower that withers.’ This blog post from the Library of Congress discusses the role of Joel Roberts Poinsett in popularizing the plant in the U.S. He was an enthusiastic plant collector, and acting Prime Plenipotentiary Minister of the U.S. to Mexico between 1825 and 1830. He brought the plant back to his home state of South Carolina after noticing it being used decoratively and ceremonially at Christmas time by Franciscan friars in Taxco, Guerrero. The plant’s well-known common name honors him. Poinsett is now considered a problematic figure because he was a slave owner and advocate of the system of slavery. Paradoxically, he also supported the South Carolina Unionists.

Before Poinsett, there was the 16th century Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire (which was itself built on the labor of landless serfs and slaves). The Spanish left a legacy of Franciscan missionaries who were intent on Christianizing the native populations. The missionaries called this plant by various Spanish names, including la flor de Nochebuena (Holy Night flower). Before the era of Conquest, the plant had (and still has) ceremonial uses (offerings to the gods) and medicinal and practical uses (to treat skin ailments and fevers, and in dye for textiles, and cosmetics). It was also planted in the gardens of Aztec rulers, according to this article by Laura Trejo in Chronica Horticulturae 60/04 – December 2020, pp.28-31.

The scientific name for poinsettia (Cuetlaxóchitl) is Euphorbia pulcherrima (a species name meaning ‘very beautiful’). The genus name was recorded in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus but he is not the original giver of this name that honors Euphorbus, Greek physician to King Juba II of Mauritania. Its origins go back to Juba himself. Pliny the Elder, in his 1st century B.C.E. book Natural History, says, “With reference to euphorbia, there is a treatise still in existence, written upon it by King Juba, in which he highly extols its [Euphorbia’s] merits. […] The properties of this plant are so remarkably powerful, that the persons engaged in collecting the juices of it are obliged to stand at a considerable distance.”

Linnaeus is now considered problematic for his classification of humans into varieties based on color, physical traits, garb, behavior, and type of government. According to the Linnean Society of London, Linnaeus’s ideas have been used to fuel modern scientific racism, that is, using science to justify racism: “Scientific racism can have devastating and far-reaching consequences for humanity, including seeing non-Europeans as less human than Europeans, and justifying the use of slavery and genocide.” Despite this, his plant classification has enduring value.

It can be difficult to disentangle plant names (both common and scientific) from the fraught histories of the people who named them. Some names are intrinsically offensive, and others honor those whose behavior was at times dishonorable. If you want to avoid using the name poinsettia, you could substitute the scientific name (recognizable by some) or the Indigenous name, both of which have deep historical roots. The Nahuatl name will be unfamiliar to most outside of Mexico, but with consistent use, it might become as familiar as tomato or avocado, both plant names adapted from Nahuatl.

, ,

Marijuana or cannabis

Washington’s Governor recently signed a bill replacing the word marijuana with cannabis in the text of all state laws because some say the word has racist undertones. But isn’t cannabis from Linnaeus’s system of plant-naming, and isn’t that system implicitly racist, too?


How people feel about use of a particular word is something that evolves over time, and has a complex cultural context. The current sense that marijuana is a racist term is linked to the demonizing of Mexican immigrants and others outside the dominant culture and blaming them for ‘reefer madness,’ but the word on its own is not intrinsically racist. It was used in Mexico as early as 1840 for the plant called Cannabis, and its linguistic origins are uncertain: homophone for Maria Juana (uncertain origin: derived from Spanish mariguan, a non-native plant associated with other psychoactive plants known in Mexico), but potentially connected to a word for hemp used by Chinese laborers in Mexico, itself perhaps borrowed from Semitic and Indo-European words for marjoram—note the Spanish word mejorana, and the Mexican slang term for cannabis, mejorana Chino. West Africans, forcibly taken by the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil, used a term ma-kaña that is similar to the Portuguese term maconha. Theories abound. Though some feel the term should be dropped, others believe that to do so suppresses a history that is worth remembering.

Isaac Campos, professor of Latin American history at University of Cincinnati, and author of the book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), challenges the idea that the word marijuana is racist. “Marijuana is just the Mexican word for drug cannabis.” The dubious associations of marijuana with insanity and criminal behavior did not originate in the United States, but first appeared in the Mexican press. Marijuana was made illegal in Mexico nearly two decades before the negative associations of the plant and its use reached the U.S. In his opinion, “the more complete story of the word marijuana is a story about the influence of Mexican culture. He believes banning the word would erase that history.” Undeniably, race and class have played a role in the enforcement of drug policies. This article from NPR’s Code Switch explores the subject.

You are right that the scientific name Cannabis is Latin. Linnaeus included it in Species Plantarum (1753). He did not restrict his classification schemes to plants, and it is true that he had theories about ‘varieties’ of human beings that we now recognize as wrong and harmful. Even the Latin name has a complex history:

The Latin name comes from Greek kannabis, which is derived from the Sanskrit root canna, meaning cane. There is a connection to Semitic languages as well (Arabic kunnab, Syriac kunnappa, Aramaic kene busma, etc.) In the book of Exodus 30:23, Moses receives instructions from god:  “Next take choice spices: five hundred weight of solidified myrrh, half as much—two hundred and fifty—of fragrant cinnamon, two hundred and fifty of aromatic cane [kaneh bosem], five hundred—by the sanctuary weight—of cassia, and a hin of olive oil. Make of this a sacred anointing oil.” This might refer to hemp stalks, which were known and used in the Near East in biblical times, or it could refer to another aromatic cane-like plant.

Because societal attitudes change, it is important to be flexible when communicating with each other, and recognize that we do not all feel the same way about words. Delving into the history and etymology of plant names is one way of arriving at a nuanced understanding of why alternative terms might be preferable.



, ,

Remembering Ledebouria

I keep forgetting the name of a plant I added to the garden some time ago, and every year I have to dig through my pile of old plant tags to remind myself. Any mnemonic devices to help me hold Ledebouria cooperi in my head? Any tips on keeping it growing well? How can I propagate it?


There are some common names that might guide you to the scientific name: Cooper’s false squill (it used to be named Scilla cooperi), Cooper’s African hyacinth, and Zebra’s quill (which evokes those delicately veined or striped leaves).

The genus is named for German botanist Carl Friedrich van Ledebour (1785-1851). The species name was given by Joseph Dalton Hooker to honor English botanist Thomas Cooper (1815-1913), who collected plants in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Pacific Bulb Society says this bulbous plant of damp eastern South African grasslands will grow well with its bulbs exposed or unexposed. It would thrive in a rock garden, growing in a wall niche, a container, or at the front of a border. According to Missouri Botanical Garden, it prefers well-drained but moist soil during active growth (but dislikes winter saturation which can rot the plant). It can be propagated by division, which is easiest to do when it is visible, not when it is dormant.

, , ,

RHS Find a Plant

The RHS Plant Finder and RHS Plant Selector combined into a single Find a Plant service, searching over 250.000 plant records. RHS Find a Plant is the standard bearer of the plant source genre published by the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain. Considered an authority for nomenclature, the Plant Finder also relates additional information such as if a plant won an award, has doubled flowers or which classification the plant belongs to within its type (e.g. a damask rose is designated with a “D”). Also available in print, this resource is useful simply for its reference value, even if you don’t plan to start importing plants.

Pronouncing botanical and Latin names

I know a fair bit about plants and their botanical Latin names, but half the time I get corrected when pronouncing them, and the corrected pronunciations vary from one person to another. What gives??


You are right in observing that there is variability in how plant names are pronounced. The Plant Answer Line librarian here at the Miller Library wrote an article on this topic, “Say What: Pronouncing Botanical Latin,” in the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, Spring 2016.

See also the following essay, What’s in a Name?, by Susan Mahr of University of Wisconsin Horticulture. Here is an excerpt:
“Most languages evolve over time, so there really can’t be any truly ‘correct’ pronunciation, just different pronunciations at different times (and places). And with an increasingly mobile and global society, interactions with other cultures influence the way we speak. Thirty years ago, few Americans would say ‘CLEM-atis,’ but now so many have heard English garden lecturers say it that way, that they reject ‘cle-MAT-is’ as substandard – despite the fact Americans have been saying that for 150 years.

“There are ‘official’ ways to say Latin words. You can read the rules, but memorizing them may end up being more work than it’s worth. For gardeners, I think the most important rule is to pronounce every letter and in the correct order. Unlike English, with all those silent vowels and diphthongs and whatnot, just separate the word into syllables and say it like it sounds. You might want to say each syllable separately, then string them together so you don’t leave anything out or mix up the sounds (as people do when they pronounce ‘anemone’ as ‘anenome’). As long as you say all the letters, the listener should be able to figure out what you mean, even if your pronunciation differs from theirs.”

Fine Gardening magazine online has a pronunciation guide with phonetic spelling and audio clips, but even here, you may find that you have heard variant pronunciations from other trusted sources.

There are a number of useful books which provide guidelines for pronunciation, such as Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen Coombes (Timber Press, 1994). Keep in mind that the author is British, and his recommended pronunciations differ in some cases from American versions.

Ultimately, though, botanical Latin was never meant to be a spoken language with set pronunciation. The most important thing is to make yourself understood.

Rhododendron or Azalea?

I can’t always tell rhododendrons and azaleas apart. Is there a way to distinguish between them?


The answer is complicated because an azalea is also a rhododendron, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas! Furthermore, some azaleas are evergreen and others are deciduous. This information from the Azalea Society of America gives a few pointers.
“Some small-leaved rhododendrons look like evergreen azaleas. To tell them apart, first look at a flower—most azaleas have only 5 or 6 stamens, while most rhododendrons have 10 stamens. Then look at a leaf—azalea leaves tend to be thinner, softer and more pointed than rhododendron leaves. Azalea leaves tend to have long straight hairs parallel to the leaf surface, usually along the midrib on the underside of the leaf. Finally, using a magnifying glass, look at the underside of a leaf for tiny round structures called scales. Azalea leaves never have scales, while small-leaved rhododendron leaves are always covered with scales. (The more correct name for small-leaved rhododendrons is ‘lepidote’ rhododendrons, where lepidote means ‘covered with scales’).”

In case you are curious, evergreen azaleas were first cultivated in Japan over 400 years ago (according to Christopher Fairweather, in his book Azaleas, Globe Pequot Press, 1988). These were the evergreen azaleas. The first azaleas in European gardens (starting in the 17th century in Holland) were deciduous, and they were endemic on three continents (particularly from Turkey, the Far East, and both coasts of North America).

There is a taxonomic explanation in Fred C. Galle’s book, Azaleas (Timber Press, 1987):
“The genus Rhododendron was first recognized by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. Linnaeus created a separate genus Azalea containing six species. In 1834, George Don […] subdivided Rhododendron into eight sections which are botanically retained today. Azalea was included under the genus Rhododendron by Don. In 1870. Dr. C. J. Maximowicz made a major contribution in the classification of Rhododendron and many oriental Azalea based on the position of leaf bud in relation to flower buds. More recent classifications reflect refinement rather than major changes. […] The question of splitting Azalea into a separate genus came up as late as 1943, but it is hoped that this classification will never be accepted.”

, ,

Index Nominum Supragenericorum Plantarum Vascularium

“A joint effort between the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, the University of Maryland and Cornell University. The purpose of the project is to capture all valid and legitimate extant vascular plants names, as defined by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, proposed above the rank of genus. These data are dynamic and constantly being updated. At any one time, the listing of a name means only that it is the earliest, valid place of publication found.”