Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Seedsman Robert Buist Gave America the Poinsettia

The Poinsettia remains a favorite plant for the holidays.

Poinsettia, courtesy of Nature Hills Nursery

Plants, like people, sometimes make a long journey from home to another culture.  That’s the story of the Poinsettia, a sun-loving tropical plant from Mexico.

The story begins with an emigrant Scottish gardener, Robert Buist (1805-1880).

After coming to Philadelphia in 1828, Buist worked for the oldest American seed company called Landreth pulling weeds, and as a gardener for the wealthy merchant Henry Pratt at his summer estate Lemon Hill.  Gardening was what he knew.

It was in the nursery business however that Buist sought to make his mark. In 1830 he partnered with Thomas Hibbert to buy Bernard McMahon’s nursery, a business well known since the early 1800s. In the new business Buist grew roses and sold them on the streets of Philadelphia, beginning what some would call market gardening.

Born near Edinburg, Buist, whose father was a gardener, trained at the Edinburg Botanic Garden. His father was his inspiration.

After Hibbert’s death, Buist bought his interest in the business and formed the Robert Buist Company, which included a seed division, a nursery, and a greenhouse.  For decades the Company became a source for seeds and plants for gardeners across the country.

Buist’s early training at the Edinburg Botanic Garden gave him the opportunity to meet James McNab, scientist and artist who eventually became the Garden’s Director.  McNab and Buist were the same age when they came to Edinburg to learn about horticulture, both sharing a dream of a career in gardening.

In the early 1830s McNab traveled to America with retired nurseryman Robert Brown to learn about our native plants.  McNab, of course, visited his friend Buist in Philadelphia.  That visit would forever be linked to our celebration of Christmas.

As early as 1819 the federal government played an important role in gathering foreign plants by instructing American diplomats to collect plants and seeds. One such diplomat was Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico.

In 1825 Poinsett came upon a plant in Mexico that so impressed him that he had cuttings shipped to his home in Charleston, South Carolina.  Buist bought the plant from him and grew it for a couple of years. He named it Euphorbia poinsettia, the first word because of its milky sap, much like other varieties of Euphorbia, and the second in honor of Dr. Poinsett.

It was the bright red bracts however that made the plant so special to Buist.  He wrote later that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

When McNab visited Buist in 1834, he gave the plant to him to take back to Scotland.  The garden’s Director Dr. Robert Graham renamed it Poinsettia pulcherrima and introduced the plant into British gardens.  Till the end of his life, Buist was upset that Graham changed the name.  Nonetheless Buist put the plant on the market.

We owe Buist a debt of gratitude for making the Poinsettia available to the world.  Ever since it has become the essential Christmas decoration.

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