In addition to trees and wreaths, perhaps the most widespread plant-life symbol of the holidays is the poinsettia. Amazingly enough, the ubiquitous flower has a big connection to the town of Fairfield. In fact, a student at the Dwight Academy on Greenfield Hill was the man who first introduced the poinsettia plant to the United States.
As a boy, Joel Robert Poinsett (1779-1851) learned calculus, Latin and Greek, navigation and surveying in the the Rev. Timothy Dwight’s renowned one-room schoolhouse on the green, just east of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church.
The nation’s first minister to Mexico and Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war, Poinsett spearheaded the eventual establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. While in Mexico in 1828, Pointsett was enchanted by a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. The Aztecs called the plant “Cuetlaxochitle.” Poinsett immediately sent clippings back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
Years later, William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked to give uuphorbia pulcherrima a new name because it was becoming so popular. In 1889, Prescott had just published a book called “The Conquest of Mexico” in which he detailed Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. Prescott decided to name the plant the poinsettia in honor of Poinsett’s discovery.
This month through Jan. 8, view the Holiday Express Train Show and visit the fully stocked Fairfield Museum Shop at 370 Beach Road. The museum and museum shop are open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but are closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. For information, visit fairfieldhistory.org or call 203-259-1598.