Poinsettias: a holiday gift from Mexico GARDENING

December 15, 1990|By Art Kozelka | Art Kozelka,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Poinsettias, undisputed floral favorites for the holidays, are usually vivid red, but not always. Sometimes they're white, pink, golden yellow and bicolored.

Of the millions that will be displayed in homes, offices and public places this festive season, however, traditional red prevails. So it has been since the early 1990s when this once-native Mexican wildflower, now vastly improved by growers, emerged as an important part of the Christmas scene.

Although marketed only between Thanksgiving and Christmas, poinsettias are the No. 1 flowering potted plant in the United States, ahead of second-place chrysanthemums.

Along with the newer colors, modern poinsettia cultivars are more versatile and dramatic, remaining beautiful for many weeks, even months, and can be cultivated as handsome, green houseplants the year around. With their semitropical background they are contented in normal household temperatures and a draft-free place.

The poinsettia, botanically known as Euphorbia pulcherrima, was brought to the attention of Americans in 1828 by Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While strolling through a Mexican forest near Taxco, he was impressed with a brilliant red flower he found blooming in December. His Mexican friends called it the "flower of the Holy Night."

It was not until 1920, however,

that the flower eventually named for Poinsett began assuming its holiday role, and then only after years of selection and hybridizing greatly enhanced its form and colors.

Much of the credit for turning the plant into a popular symbol of Christmas is attributed to the Ecke family of Encinitas, Calif., which developed the first variety that could be grown as an indoor plant. Today the Ecke Poinsettia Ranch is one of the foremost producers of new varieties, supplying cuttings to greenhouse growers nationwide.

The spectacular color of the poinsettias is not found in the flowers, but actually in the swirl of bracts, or modified leaves. The true flowers are the small clusters of yellow or green "buttons" in the center of the bracts.

Charles Heidgen, proprietor of Shady Hill Gardens in Batavia, a major Chicago-area poinsettia grower, agrees that red continues to be the favorite color, a fact evident by the predominance of this color in his greenhouses.

"However," Heidgen said, "the appeal of other colors, such as the golden yellow Lemon Drop and Pink Perfection cannot be overlooked, especially when they are displayed for contrasting effect among the flaming red plants.

"Actually, selecting a holiday poinsettia is a matter of individual preference," he added. "There are plants appropriate for any purpose. Apart from the range of colors, one can choose from small teacup specimens suitable for table settings, hanging baskets, and mini-plants to large containers with multi-plants for especially dramatic decor."

Poinsettias are particularly sensitive to cold; so make sure when transporting them home from the plant shop, or delivering them as gifts, to protect them from temperatures below 50 degrees. Chilling will cause leaves to drop. Follow these additional tips to prolong enjoyment of your plants during the holidays and beyond:

*Place plants in a room where there is lots of bright natural light.

*To sustain bright color of the bracts, temperatures should not exceed 72 degrees during the day or 60 degrees at night.

*Check plants daily and water only when soil is dry to the touch, then saturate soil until water seeps through drainage holes. Discard excess water.

*Keep plants away from drafts, radiators and hot-air registers.

*Fertilize every second week, using liquid or dry plant food according to label directions.

Continue caring for your plants as outlined after their holiday role and they will last indefinitely, often retaining their colorful bracts until early spring. When they begin to languish, cut them back, leaving two or three nodes per stem. This will encourage new, attractive leafy growth.

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