It rarely flourishes after the holidays, but the classic Christmas centerpiece keeps growing in favor with Americans

A PASSION FOR POINSETTIAS

November 07, 1996|By Mike Klingaman

One hundred and seventy years ago, an American diplomat crossing Mexico spied a field of fiery-looking plants, dug some up and shipped them home to the United States.

How ironic. The man, Joel Poinsett, became secretary of war, while the plant named for him became a symbol of the season of peace.

What better harbinger of the holidays than the poinsettia, the classic Christmas centerpiece in the foil-rimmed pot, whose sales are expected to top 72 million plants this season?

And all because of a chance discovery in the Mexican countryside.

"He [Poinsett] was in the right place at the right time -- and so were the plants," says Doug Radebaugh, a Towson florist who hopes to peddle about 50,000 poinsettias in the next two months.

Radebaugh's plants, some of them bound for the White House and the Smithsonian Institution, are raised in a greenhouse in rural Freeland (northern Baltimore County). There, in a building as big as a football field, the poinsettias have begun to "ripen," or turn color, a natural process triggered by the shorter days of autumn.

Come Thanksgiving, when the plants' transformation is complete, the greenhouse will be bathed in "a sea of red, with islands of white and pink," says Radebaugh. "It's quite a sight."

Cue the cash registers. Who can resist a plant that decks itself out for the holidays?

"Poinsettias are as much a part of the season as the Christmas tree," says Thom David, spokesman for the Paul Ecke Ranch in California, the world's largest producer of poinsettias. "People buy them for decorations, or as gifts. The best thing is, you don't have to worry if somebody has one already, because poinsettias look better in groups."

Poinsettia sales are increasing by about 10 percent a year, says David. Nurseries, supermarkets and discount stores have begun clearing shelves to stock up on the cheap, colorful plants in 4- and 6-inch pots -- and not just for Christmas. Poinsettias have been used to decorate birthday parties, weddings, even funerals.

"We've seen them placed at grave sites," says David.

People are smitten with poinsettias, whose floral pattern appears on everything from clothing to cookie cutters.

"There are poinsettia designs on neckties, tablecloths and who knows what all," says David. "You name it, there's a poinsettia something."

Seen around town: a before-and-after poinsettia sweater. The front boasts the likeness of a crimson plant in bloom; the back, barren sticks and shriveled foliage.

Poinsettias don't last long, and that is part of their allure. They're expected to succumb between New Year's Day and the Super Bowl, to be trashed with the tree and the tinsel.

Your poinsettia died last year? Join the club. Poinsettias come with a guilt-free guarantee.

"You can try to keep them alive to bloom next year, but it's a lot of work," says David. "The plants must be pruned, watered, fertilized and, finally, plunged into total darkness for 14 straight hours every day from October through November.

"Most people don't go to the trouble and, frankly, we [growers] don't mind that approach."

Even horticulturists balk at maintaining the plants in their home from year to year. "We threw out the last poinsettia from our home in April," says Radebaugh, the Towson florist. "It was still red, still decent. We just got tired of looking at it."

But this is November, and the poinsettia's charm is at its peak. At Fanton and Gahs, a nursery in Parkville, 20,000 of the plants are being readied for delivery to area malls and other sites, where they'll serve as holiday decorations.

Dwain Wolf, sales manager at Fanton and Gahs, thought he'd be glad to see the poinsettias go. "I hate the color red," he says, peering out at the endless rows of greenhouse stock. "But I've got to admit, it's really beautiful here."

Though poinsettias are hard to maintain in the home, they are easier to breed than ever, nurserymen say. The plants come in new colors (including orange, salmon and yellow) and sizes, from tiny boutonniere types to 4-foot poinsettia "trees," lollipop-shaped plants whose tops erupt in a mass of blooms.

"Genetically, these are better plants than just five years ago," says David, of the Ecke Ranch, where poinsettia breeding goes on. "These plants are a little more forgiving to folks who forget to water them for a day or two -- the No. 1 cause of death."

Even so, it's important to shop wisely. Buy plants with healthy green foliage, neither yellow nor droopy. The petals, or bracts, should be fully colored (red, white, etc.) at time of purchase. Otherwise, the plant will never mature.

"The poinsettia is not like a rose that will continue to open in your home," David says.

Avoid plants wrapped in plastic, which is how they arrive in stores. "If the poinsettias are still in plastic, they haven't been cared for," David says. Check the soil at the base of the plants: It should be moist, but not soaking wet. The plants should also come with basic instructions for home care.

Today Joel Poinsett's discovery is America's top-selling flowering potted plant. As for the man, how is he remembered?

Each Christmas, members of a little church in Sumter, S.C., place several poinsettias on a raised vault beside the choir entrance, in tribute to Poinsett, who is buried there and who is a native son of South Carolina. Several dozen more of the plants are spaced around the worship area.

"We really stock up on poinsettias, probably more so than most churches," one parishioner says.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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