WTF Fun Fact 13103 – Dr. Joel Poinsett

Do you know where the poinsettia – the traditional flower of the Christmas season – got its name? We assumed it was a botanical concoction. But it was named after Dr. Joel Poinsett.

Who was Joel Poinsett?

If you’re beginning to decorate for the holidays this year, you may have picked up a few poinsettias. (And, hopefully, if you have pets, they are far out of reach!) The flowers are pretty long-lasting, so if you care for them, you can pick one up the day before Thanksgiving, and it may last all the way through New Year’s Eve!

The flowers – particularly the red ones – are a very common winter season decoration. And that’s been the case for many years thanks to Joel Poinsett.

Dr. Joel Poinsett was the United States Secretary of War in 1838. According to Smithsonian Magazine (cited below),“…he presided over the United States Exploring Expedition, the first circumnavigation of the globe sponsored by the United States.” In choosing the team of explorers, he insist many scientists be included.

He got the job, in part, because he himself was a botanist. And when he served as the first U.S. minister to Mexico, he found the flower growing there. Locals told him it was once used by the Aztecs as both a red dye and a medicine to help reduce fevers.

Eventually, Poinsett became a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science when it was formed in 1840. The goal of the organization was to promote the study of natural history and other sciences.

The name “poinsettia”

Poinsett was a physician, diplomat, botanist, and more in a time when a man could be all of those things (partly because they didn’t require nearly as much formal training as they do now). But that’s to say that he has a lot more in his background than just a flower.

Upon finding the flower called the Flor de Nochebuena (or Christmas Eve flower) in Mexico, he sent a specimen back to the U.S. That’s when it became known as a poinsettia in his honor. But it had long been a Christmas flower.  WTF fun facts

Source: “How Joel Poinsett, the Namesake for the Poinsettia, Played a Role in Creating the Smithsonian” — Smithsonian Magazine


WTF Fun Fact 12967 – Bats and Tequila

There’s a little-known but critical relationship between bats and tequila. In fact, without bats, we may not be able to create tequila at all!

How are bats and tequila connected?

If you’re a tequila fan, you probably know the crucial ingredient in the spirit is agave. This spiky plant is native to the desert regions of North and South America (but mostly Mexico). Agave nectar is also harvested to be used as a sweetener.

One of the many interesting things about the agave plant is that it has very few natural pollinators. (And you likely know that in order for plants to produce, they need to be pollinated by things like birds, bees, etc.)

The agave plant’s primary pollinator is bats. No bats, no agave. No agave, no tequila.

Is the tequila supply in danger?

To make matters even more complicated for agave plants, only a few species of bats are pollinators. These bats are being threatened by industrial farming and other threats to their natural habitats.

But while the bats and agave plants are increasingly threatened, our thirst for tequila has only gone up. According to NPR (cited below), the tequila industry has grown by 60% over the last decade. That means we need more agave plants than ever.

You might think that industrial farming would simply increase the amount of agave being grown, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

How do you solve a problem like agave?

NPR interviewed Micaela Jemison of Bat Conservation International, who said that the problem with commercial agave production is that agave stalks are harvested before they can reproduce. “That means no tasty pollen for hungry bats. And instead of plants that reproduce through bats spreading pollen from stem to stem, major tequila companies use cloned agave.”

If you only care about tequila, you might not think this is a big deal, but there are some major unintended consequences of handing a natural process over to a business.

“Growing genetically identical plants is easy and cheap for big companies, but cloned agave is vulnerable to fungus or disease that could wipe out entire crops. Bats can solve this problem by creating genetic diversity. Instead, their ecosystem has been disrupted. Fewer agave plants are allowed to flower and growers use powerful agrochemicals that can hurt the three kind of bats that feed on agave.”

The Mexican long-nosed bat and the lesser long-nosed bat are two of the major agave pollinators listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a third, the Mexican long-tongued bat, is a species of concern.

To help spread appreciation for the relationship between bats and tequila, the Tequila Interchange Project (which is made up of bartenders, scientists, industry consultants, and plain old tequila fans) is trying to promote Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal™. These approved brands give some of their proceeds to agave farmers who welcome the bats and help maintain their populations.

Bat-friendly tequila

The coalition notes that “Given that Tequila is a two billion USD a year industry, and that the economy of 40,000 families is linked to blue agaves (and to bats and other pollinators), it is in the best interest of all stakeholders, from producers to the government to the individual consumer and everyone in-between, to protect the future of tequila and mezcal agaves by adopting sustainable practices and protecting pollinators and genetic resources.”

According to the website, some of the bat-friendly brands include:
– Tequila 8
– Tequila Tapatio
– Tesoro de Don Felipe
– Siembra Valles Ancestral
– 7 Leguas
– Siembra Metl Cupreata
– TOCUZ Alto
– Don Mateo de la Sierra Cupreata
– Mezcal Vago Pechuga

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Bats And Tequila: A Once Boo-tiful Relationship Cursed By Growing Demands” — NPR