Poinsettia pointers

There are close to 200 varieties of poinsettias on the market today and though they’re only sold during the holidays, they consistently rank as the top-selling flowering, potted plant in the country. That’s kind of an amazing statistic when you consider that poinsettias were in no way related to Thanksgiving or Christmas before the 1920s.

The poinsettia is actually native to southern Mexico and Central America where the warm climate encourages the plant to grow as a shrub, sometimes as tall as 10 feet. It was Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, who introduced the poinsettia to America. Taken, no doubt, by the plant’s rich, red blooms (which are not flowers but leaves, known as “bracts”) he had a few of them sent back to his home in South Carolina. There, in his hothouses, he propagated the plant and sent some to friends and to botanical gardens. By 1833, the first “poinsettias” were for sale in local nurseries.

Because the poinsettia’s brilliant red blooms appeared naturally in early winter, California agricultural entrepreneur Albert Ecke and his son, Paul Ecke, Sr., decided to try growing and marketing the plant as a holiday flower in the 1920s. The public fell in love with the plant and, today, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., is the largest breeder of poinsettias in the world. They are also the biggest supplier of poinsettia cuttings to commercial growers in the United States.

Nurseries, such as Twin Cities-based Bachman’s and Gertens use cuttings to grow the nearly 100,000 poinsettias each produce every season because seeds can’t be trusted to produce offspring that consistently look like their parents. And growing poinsettias from cuttings is an arduous process. Both Bachman’s and Gertens plant their tiny 2-inch-tall cuttings in early June and then must watch over them intently for the next five months so each plant gets enough water, fertilizer and light. Temperature is strictly managed and pest and disease control requires extreme vigilance.

Poinsettias have changed a lot since the 1960s, when breeding programs launched by the USDA and a few private companies, including the Paul Ecke Ranch, began producing varieties that were superior to their ancestors. Shorter, bushier and stronger than they were in the past, poinsettias now also come in a wide range of colors and have bracts and green leaves of varying sizes and textures.  

While new poinsettia varieties are introduced in national trials every year, there are several recent standouts available this season. These are from the Paul Ecke Ranch.

— Prestige™ Early Red: The Prestige family of poinsettias is well known for having strong branches and bracts of a very deep red. It is so popular that, in the last five years, it has become the most widely produced poinsettia in the world. Prestige Early Red improves on this favorite poinsettia by blooming in early November, about two weeks earlier than its predecessors.

— Freedom™ Peppermint: The Freedom family of cultivars includes a wide variety of colors. With its darkly speckled pink bracts, Freedom Peppermint is a departure from them all. It is also an early bloomer.

— Orange Spice: Touted as the brightest orange-red cultivar available to date, Orange Spice is a novelty color meant to appeal to those who want something different than traditional red. Because its bracts are narrower than other varieties, more of the green leaves show through and contrast with the orange.

— Ice Punch: A consumer favorite in 2007 poinsettia trials, Ice Punch is available exclusively at most Home Depot stores this season but will be a catalog offering in 2009. Its pink-red bracts feature a feathery white center and are more upright than many other varieties.

If you plan to pick up a poinsettia or two this holiday season, you can be sure you’re buying one that’s been bred to be tough and long lasting. But there are some things you can do to help them thrive long after Christmas. Probably the most important moment happens when you take the plant home. If it is below 40 degrees, and in Minnesota it likely will be, be sure your poinsettia is wrapped and sealed tightly before taking it outside. Exposure to cold may cause leaves to drop off or, at the very least, wilt.

Though it may seem strange for such a tropical-looking plant, poinsettias will do best in indirect light rather than a bright window. Water poinsettias only if the soil feels dry. When you do water, hold the plant under running water until water runs out the bottom of the pot. Let all the excess water drain before returning the plant to its pot. Mist poinsettia leaves to keep them looking fresh.

Oh, and one last thing: Contrary to long-held popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous to pets, though the milky-sap inside the stem can cause skin irritation in some people.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question, you can e-mail it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.