The Mexican Riviera and Joel Poinsett
The Charleston Gardener
By Louisa Cameron
Early last December, I went off on an adventure by myself. We were supposed to cruise to Hawaii from Los Angeles on one of the elegant Viking ocean ships, but COVID-19 interfered and Viking changed the trip to the Mexican Riviera at the last minute. My husband decided not to go and sent me on my merry way with his blessing. I was disappointed not to see the flowers of Hawaii, but Mexico was beautiful and dry.
The weather was glorious, the ship was less than two-thirds full, and the tourist towns of La Paz, Mazatlán, Manzanilla, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas were not at all crowded. I failed to make arrangements to visit a botanical garden that was over a two-hour drive from one of our ports, as I could not get even a small group together and did not care to venture on a long outing alone. I did take notes on some of the plant material we saw along the way, most notably the poinsettia, which was planted and displayed in abundance.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, last of the South Carolina Huguenot Poinsetts, was born in 1779 to a prominent family in Charleston. His father was a physician and his mother, Katherine Ann Roberts, was from England, where Joel spent six years and where he began his formal education. In 1800, Joel returned to Charleston and studied law, but he also continued to study one of his favorite topics, military tactics. Early in his career, he became superintendent of public works in S.C. and is credited with having several bridges built under his supervision.
After his sister’s death in 1804, he became the only child and inherited a fortune. He traveled extensively throughout the United States and spent several years in Europe. In 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars, Joel visited Russia where he was entertained by high society. He met with and dined with presidents, statesmen, wealthy merchants, entrepreneurs, the Khan of Khuban and Czar Alexander.
From 1810 to 1814, Poinsett served as a special agent to Chile and Argentina. Forced to remain in Chile during the War of 1812, he made many connections and was later considered to be an authority on South American affairs. In 1820, after returning to Charleston, he won a seat in the House of Representatives. Simultaneously, he served as an envoy to Mexico and signed the first treaty between the U.S. and Mexico, the Treaty of Limits, which recognized the U.S.-Mexico border established in 1819 with the Spanish. In 1825, President James Monroe appointed him minister to Mexico, where he spent more than four years. There he re-discovered the exotic plant named for him.
Described as a “devoted botanist,” Minister Poinsett sent plants back to America from Mexico. One of these was the particularly brilliant red and green plant described as “flor de la Noche Buena,” or Christmas Eve flower, which he sent to a friend who was the current owner of the famous Bartram nursery near Philadelphia. The specimen was later introduced at the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society and by 1834 the plants were being marketed as poinsettias.
He married Mary Pringle, widow of John Julius Pringle, Jr., and before his death, he devoted himself to her rice plantation upstate, his garden and his books. Poinsett served as secretary of war from 1837 to 1841 and died of tuberculosis in 1851. For all of his notable achievements, he will always be best remembered for the much-loved plant native to South America and Mexico. Its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, and it is a member of the spurge family. Its crimson (or white) parts are actually the bracts, as the true flowers are the yellow petals in the middle. The plant adapts well to a wide variety of environments and can be kept alive, with a bit of careful attention, for re-potting year after year.
While touring during our port visits, it became evident that many of the plants that were in bloom during December also flourish in Charleston. Bougainvilleas were in full magenta glory all up and down the coast. It was the dry season, and near a few of the resorts where the plants got irrigated, they were a particularly glorious mixture of vivid pink, red, deep purple, salmon, and white. Ruellia, or “Macho Morada,” is known as Mexican petunia. This prolific spreader will grow several feet tall and is covered with purple trumpets that resemble petunias. I always heard it called breakfast plant because it was so fresh in the morning and faded in the afternoon. It can become invasive in our zone 8b and is best kept confined in pots or in areas where spreading is not a problem. Several cultivars have been developed for the plant markets and most of them will bloom in early summer and then again in the fall. They are tolerant of some shade and drought. A good place to see them in bloom is around Colonial Lake.
The clear blue plumbago, a South African native, thrives in heat and the dry December climate of Mexico along the country’s northwestern coast. There, it was in full bloom and was especially effective contrasted with the brilliant clear yellow petals of cassia corymbosa, known as buttercup bush or common senna. The cassia I saw is a native of Argentina and has become popular in Charleston. It appreciates full sun and can be used in dry spots, but it tends to grow large and unruly if not kept in check. It also blooms in Charleston both summer and fall.
Nerium oleander, referred to just as oleander, was blooming everywhere we visited. It can thrive in drought, heat, salt spray and poor soil. There are smaller cultivars available, but most oleanders are tough evergreen shrubs that can grow well over 12 feet tall. The oleander was brought to Galveston, Texas, in 1841 by a merchant from Jamaica and subsequently was promoted in warm and coastal regions. It’s an ancient plant that was enjoyed by the Greeks, the Chinese, the Romans and by gardeners in Pompeii.
Oleander is mentioned several times in the Talmud. The leaves are toxic; a childhood friend ate a leaf and had to have her stomach pumped — a memorable incident for a kindergartener. The city’s High Battery and Murray Boulevard are lined with them and are pruned from time to time. Gardens and yards and causeways to our barrier islands are dotted with these reliable bloomers, which range in colors from reds to pinks to white and yellows. Lady Bird Johnson promoted the shrub in Texas and President Ronald Reagan designated miles and miles of California freeway to be planted with oleanders when he was governor of California.
Viburnum is a huge family of blooming shrubs. They were in evidence all along the coast we traveled, but I could not accurately identify any of them. They are best known for white blossoms and red berries on shrubs ranging from 22 feet high. Viburnums grow well in Charleston and the local nurseries have a good selection.
Ixora, a native of southern Asia, was another handsome evergreen shrub blooming in Mexico in December. It just “lit up” many of the areas where it had been planted. I was told that in the U. S., it blooms on and off all year, especially in Florida, where it has earned the nickname “flame of the woods.” It is classified as a semi-tropical and only grow it in a pot, because it does not like alkaline soil and in a pot, I can give it the acidic fertilizer it needs. Ixora prefers a sunny spot, but still produces blooms in a range of orange to peach to salmon when placed in semi-shade. There is a white cultivar as well.
I was surprised to see so many plants familiar to the gardens of Charleston in full bloom along Mexico’s northwestern coast. It is a testament to the thousands of miles plants have traveled over the centuries and to the great collectors who have sought to describe, document, and introduce them to new environments.
Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.