Holidays in bloom The popularity of poinsettias as a holiday flower has been boosted by the development of new varieties

Focus on Poinsettias.

December 13, 1998|By Beth Smith | Beth Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A rose by any other name is still a rose - unless it is 'Winter Rose,' a brand-new poinsettia making its debut this holiday season. It is causing a stir.

Unlike a traditional poinsettia, this recently cultivated breed has curly edges that dip and curve inward. It comes in two styles: one bloom perched atop a tall, single stem; or several blooms clustered among the wavy-edged leaves of a multi-branched plant.

At Hillcrest Nursery in Millers, Jim and Steve Hershfeld nurtured 200 'Winter Rose' cuttings from the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif., where this new cultivar was created, and where 80 percent of America's poinsettias get their start.

"I like to find something new in plants. It keeps us successful," says Steve Hershfeld, explaining why he took a chance on a plant some call a novelty. "And I have to admit I was indifferent when I first saw the 'Winter Rose.' " Visitors to the Hershfelds' wholesale greenhouses weren't so unsure. "They really flipped over this plant," he adds. "They loved its dark red color, its double flower image and its uniqueness."

"We have discovered that people are open to new varieties of poinsettias," explains Patricia Harr, spokeswoman for the Paul Ecke Ranch, who adds that five years ago 90 per cent of all poinsettias bought by consumers were red, compared with 70 per cent today. "The younger generation is looking for something different from what their parents or grandparents had," she says.

At Behnke Nurseries, a grower/retailer in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, customers have been "very enthusiastic," says assistant buyer Marian Parsley. "When they first see 'Winter Rose,' they think it is weird, but they end up really loving it."

When Behnke's displayed 24 pots of 'Winter Rose' as a trial run in mid-November, customers bought them all. Four hundred more were sold during Thanksgiving week, cleaning out Behnke's home-grown stock. Finding a 'Winter Rose' poinsettia this month is not going to be an easy task.

But never fear. The market is loaded with all sorts of gorgeous poinsettias that will add their charm to holiday decorating. This season over 65 million plants will find their way into American churches, schools, stores, hotels, malls, restaurants and homes. The elegantly vivid poinsettia is No. 1, the most popular flowering potted plant in the United States, according to the USDA's Agriculture Board of Statistics.

Not a bad showing, considering that it once was a scrawny, if showy, plant growing wild on the hills of Mexico. Discovered in 1825 by U.S. Ambassador Joel Robert Poinsett, plants were dug up and shipped to Poinsett's plantation in South Carolina, where they were greeted with enthusiasm by botanists and gardeners. But as late as 1963, poinsettias were still mostly field-grown and harvested to be sold as cut flowers.

When the Eckes and other growers began experimenting with the plants in the early 20th century and moving them into greenhouses, poinsettias blossomed as house plants. By the late 1960s, they were growing in popularity. The USDA reported a 400 per cent increase in wholesale value from 1976 to 1988. Blooming in November and December, the plants became a natural to market during the holiday season.

This Christmas connection isn't new. Poinsettias had played a part in Christian religious celebrations in Mexico as early as the 17th century. Franciscan priests had used the plants as part of a nativity procession during the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. They considered its bright red color a symbol of purity.

"There is a legend that goes along with that story," relates Ecke's spokeswoman Harr. "A little peasant girl wanted to bring a gift to the church to celebrate Christ's birth. She had nothing, but on her way, she grabbed a fistful of weeds growing on a hillside. When she arrived at the church, her weeds had turned into a beautiful red flower - the poinsettia."

While red is considered the most traditional color for poinsettias, today plants also come in white, pink, salmon and even yellow. Some varieties sport color variations like whites marbled with pink or red, and reds speckled with white or pink; some are christened with names like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Candy Cane.' There is even a 'Monet,' a handsome variety whose blooms seem to be washed in muted hues of peach and pink.

Growers have also prodded and twisted poinsettias into new shapes. A poinsettia tree is a topiary-like plant whose colorful blooms top a sturdy but slim stem reaching 3 or 4 feet. Hanging poinsettia baskets are stuffed with nine or more plants that poke through openings, creating a mass of color.

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