Growing Colors

Baltimore County's John Fantom developed the popular Jingle Bells variety of poinsettia

In The Garden

December 12, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For someone who pioneered the idea of a holiday "novelty" plant -- and invented 'Jingle Bells,' one of America's most beloved varieties of poinsettia -- John Fantom of Baltimore County is extravagantly humble. "It was all because of a chimera," he said not long ago with a shrug, and using a rare word to explain a rare occurrence in horticulture.

Others call it a "mutation" or a "sport." By any name, it was a big event in Fantom's life when, back in 1971, a red poinsettia growing in one of his greenhouses inexplicably sprouted a leaf cluster, or bract, that was irregularly mottled in psychedelic shades of raspberry and pink.

Around this time, several other poinsettia growers had seen similar mutations, acknowledged Fantom's friend and fellow greenhouse farmer, Clifford Egerton. "But they all thought it was a virus and discarded the plants," Egerton said. "Only Johnny knew enough to see this sport as something that could be propagated."

In honor of such keen-eyed wisdom, and due to his tireless work in support of the industry, Fantom was named the 2004 Greenhouse Grower of the Year by the Maryland Greenhouse Growers Association. So, since today is National Poinsettia Day, you might guess he'd be resting on his laurels this morning, feet up, and perhaps reading about himself in the newspaper.

Guess again. For though he's arrived at a giddily geriatric age where he rounds upward -- "I'm 13 months shy of 80" -- today, as every day, Fantom is probably at work, prowling among his favorite flowers.

"He's here seven days a week," explained his son, Bob, president of Fantom & Gahs Greenhouses Inc. "Dad has always said that a person who is really happy doesn't need a hobby."

A greenhouse tour

Fantom certainly had a merry smile one recent afternoon as he showed a visitor around his farm in Fullerton, near Belair Road. Above a pair of super-sized spectacles, he wore a cap cocked at a jaunty angle that had a Bulle Rock golf club logo.

Of his 25 greenhouses, the newest is a gleaming pavilion the size of several football fields that some of his employees have playfully dubbed "The Rock," as in Alcatraz. Here, Fantom grows kalanchoes, cyclamen, azaleas and violets. Strolling through The Rock, he had a wave or a word for nearly everyone. One of his employees, Donna Humphreys, who was busily potting begonias, looked after her boss with a sigh.

"I just love Mr. John to death. He's a born teacher," she said. "He always tells us, 'Think of the plant first.' They are like tiny babies, and we are nurturing them."

Elsewhere around his rambling eight acres are much older greenhouses, some dating to the 1880s, where glass-walled rooms are warm, humid and pleasantly corroded about the edges with a mixture of emerald moss and cinnamon-colored mold.

"Watch your noggin," he advised, leading the way through a low-slung door into one of these buildings and parting a red sea of poinsettias arrayed on rolling platforms. The floor was wet, slippery and steeply tilted upward, yet Fantom was surefooted and eagle-eyed in his vigilance over the nearly 50,000 poinsettias he'll ship this season. So paternal is he toward these "babies" that he claims to recognize flowers he's grown when he sees them displayed in public.

As he moved among rows of varieties with names like 'Twilight,' 'Olympus' and 'Monet,' he pointed out subtle differences in petal appearance due to "veination" and "puckering" and offered tips on which lighting best displays a poinsettia's unique sheen.

While talking, he was forever fussing with his plants: caressing, deadheading, checking soil moisture, even pulling a whole plant from the pot and sniffing its roots. He does this instinctively, and seemed almost embarrassed when asked to explain what exactly it is he's looking for.

"Poinsettias are easy to mess up," he finally offered. Because they are prone to diseases both air- and water-borne, Fantom goes so far as to steam-sterilize his soil mix before planting his cuttings. "Every one of our plants is looked at every day. Raising poinsettias is sort of like having cows. You need to tend to them."

Egerton agrees. "Plants don't know that it's Sunday or a holiday or your wife's birthday."

Should John Fantom ever forget this last date, his wife, Carolyn, is usually working in the front office as the company's secretary and treasurer, so she can easily remind him. Fantom & Gahs, you see, is decidedly a family affair. In addition to Bob, another son, Tom, is general manager, and daughter Judy is on the board of directors.

Poinsettias, suggested Tom, are practically a year-round crop. Work begins in early April when the "mother" plants arrive from California and continues over the half-year with soil mixing, rooting of plant cuttings, and manipulations of day length through shrouding the greenhouses with black tarpaulins in order to control when the poinsettias flower.

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