A tower of holiday cheer in Columbia

Poinsettia tree at the mall has 685 plants that are a delight for shoppers

November 22, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

On the surface, it looks like a lush, leafy tower of poinsettias in a traditional holiday tree shape, holding court in the center of The Mall in Columbia.

Peek beneath the surface, though, and the mall's display is a hardware lover's delight.

Its center support is a Baltimore City light pole, holding up a custom-built, 20-foot-high steel structure with 12 circular platforms that this year hold 685 potted poinsettia plants.

The "tree" has become a fixture of the mall's holiday decorating and a magnet for visitors from across Maryland and beyond. It will be on display through New Year's Day.

"It's an expensive venture, but one of the things we feel we have to have," said Asa Williams, the mall's marketing manager.

She said many areas of the mall have promotional signs and banners where there were once holiday decorations, but the staff and customers still look forward to seeing some elements of the season.

Williams said the poinsettia tree is particularly appealing because "it's live, it's real, it's a living, breathing thing that requires a coordinated team effort."

That effort started Sunday when the framework was pulled out of storage and bolted together by mall employees in an emptied fountain under a two-story atrium.

Workers also hooked up an irrigation system with hundreds of thin hoses - one to tuck into every pot. A faucet built into the fountain is used to provide water to the plants every few days.

The plants were delivered Monday, and a crew from Foliage Design Systems, which provides all of the mall's interior landscaping, arranged them by size in preparation for the final assembly.

On Tuesday, six men climbed on the steel skeleton, covering it with green burlap and meticulously positioning the poinsettias to create a lush tree shape. Plants were propped on inverted flowerpots and blocks of wood to set them at the correct height - leaving no visible holes on the surface - and twine was used to hold each row in place.

Mall staff members planned to cover the space below the tree with a skirt and refill the fountain to complete the display.

Frank Noto has been building poinsettia trees for 22 years, previously as director of landscaping for the Rouse Co. and now as an independent contractor. He believes the idea dates back nearly 30 years to another former Rouse landscaper.

Noto said he once traveled with a team of workers to put up poinsettia trees in Rouse-owned shopping centers across the country. Each one had a framework like the one being used in Columbia, he said. They were built in Baltimore and shipped to other sites.

General Growth Properties bought the Rouse Co. in 2004 and owns and manages the Mall in Columbia.

Noto said he believes there are only a few places in which poinsettia trees are put up, but Columbia patrons seem attached to seeing it every year.

"People love it," he said. Judy MacKenzie of Crawford, Texas, remembered seeing the poinsettia tree on a visit to Maryland in 1999. When she arrived at her sister-in-law's home in Severn this week, she requested another trip to The Mall in Columbia specifically to see the tree.

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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