Emperor Agustin I of Mexico had a problem--he was out of money. If it had cost only a dollar to go around the world, he couldn't have made it out of Mexico City.
This should have been an unlikely problem for the ruling monarch of Mexico to have to face: for centuries, Mexico had been the primary source of the gold and silver that supported literally the entire Spanish Empire. In addition, in order to maximize profits, Spain had not allowed Mexico to develop a manufacturing base.
Mexico was expected to export raw materials--primarily gold and silver--then purchase its manufactured goods from the mother country. This was calculated to keep the colony weak and dependent while making Spain rich (at least that was the plan). In reality, Spain didn't bother to expand its own industrial base and simply purchased the necessary goods from neighboring European countries. Why bother to develop a textile industry when the fabric was available at such cheap prices from Flanders?
So the gold and silver just flowed right through Spain and on into the rest of Europe, where it fueled wars, expansion, and world domination for centuries. Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican historian, said it best: "The wealth that made Spain rich made Spain poor."
Now, the ruling monarch of Mexico had just barely enough remaining gold and silver to mint a limited number of coins bearing his likeness. Pitifully few in numbers, these coins were pleasing to the royal ego, but inadequate to jump start his nation's shattered economy. The turbulent years of revolution had brought Mexico independence, but had also left her treasury looted, her mines flooded, and her economy destroyed.
Emperor Agustin needed help, and he needed it in the form of hard currency, so he tried to borrow a few measly million dollars from the United States.
President Monroe was a little uncomfortable with the idea of America's propping up a monarchy, even if it was a neighbor. While Madison never did send the desired money, he did send a special envoy to Mexico to enhance the relationship between the two countries. (Why not an ambassador? The United States did not start appointing ambassadors until 1896.)
So, the American envoy went to Mexico and explained to the monarch why he wasn't going to get any financial help. Then he stayed in Mexico for years while Mexico deposed its king and went through a series of Presidents.
While in Mexico, the American representative traveled south of the capital to Taxco de Alarcon. An amateur naturalist, he became enamored with a plant the Aztecs called Cuetlaxochitl (ket-la-sho-she). The strange looking plant--which only bloomed during the winter--had a different name among the Spanish in the area: Flor de Noche Buena or the Christmas Eve Flower. This plant had bright red leaves and had long been used by Franciscan monks to decorate altars during Christmas.
Naturally, when he returned to the United States, he brought the damn plant with him and started giving cuttings to his friends. For reasons that escape me, this envoy--Joel Poinsett--wasn't tried for treason. Within a few years, the plant was known (at least in the United States) as the Poinsettia.
As you can probably tell, I'm not exactly fond of the damn plant. My reasons are something that Emperor Agustin could understand--the cost. The damn plants are fairly expensive and every damn December, my wife starts buying the damn things until the house is lousy with them--paying about $10 each for something that is considered an obnoxious weed in Southern Mexico!
If you really want the silly plants, buy the seeds mail order. Then, if you plant them in August, within a few months, you will have a healthy looking plant with normal green leaves. About Thanksgiving, the "leaves" (actually, these are "bracts") turn red. Many people mistakenly believe that this is the blossom, but in late December, the real blossoms appear as tiny red and yellow berries.
Personally, I don't think the plants are very pretty: those red "leaves" just look wrong and the plants look unhealthy. But what I really dislike is the fact that the damn plants die rapidly. I think our house's personal record is keeping one alive about a month. Then, suddenly, all the leaves fall off at once and we have a $10 collection of ugly, knobby sticks.
Truthfully, it is probably not the plant's fault, but it is probably because The Doc and I are the most absent-minded people in the world. We once left a bouquet of Valentine's Day roses in a vase on top of the television for three years. Even then, the only reason we "noticed" them was because a guest in our home commented on the "unusual" arrangement of dried flowers.
Poinsettias, however, don't just die, they damn near self-destruct. Now before any of you write me with bogus stories about how you have one that has been alive for 5 years, let me warn you that I know better--and so did the Aztecs. Their name for the ugly weed, Cuetlaxochitl, translates to "flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.”
So about a year ago, I decided to take matters into my own hands and keep the damn plants alive long enough so that my wife wouldn't replace them before Christmas. I religiously watered the half dozen ugly weeds my wife had bought to decorate our house. Every damn day, before I left for work, I watered the poinsettias. I even left myself notes on my computer keyboard to remind me--this year, I was going to get one of the stupid plants to survive at least into the new year.
And it worked: as I watered the plants day after day, the ugly red things looked (if not good) at least as healthy as the day The Doc had brought them home. I had succeeded!--by the time New Years rolled in, I was feeling pretty proud of myself.
And that's when my wife finally admitted to me that she had bought plastic poinsettias that year!