A white poinsettia is transformed into a sparkling jewel with… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
According to legend, a humble bouquet of weeds placed by a little Mexican girl at the foot of a nativity scene miraculously burst into brilliant red flowers, and from that moment, the poinsettia became the floral symbol of Christmas.
Red may be the most popular color of the holiday plant, but thanks to plant-friendly spray paint and plant-friendly glitter, it is not the only color.
Not by a long shot.
A Ravens fan? You can have your poinsettia in purple and black. An Orioles fan? You can have it in orange.
"Some people just want it to match their living room," says Kerry Kelley of Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. She "paints" a couple of hundred poinsettia plants each week between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a rainbow of colors.
As she explains that the specially made paint and glitter is applied only to the tops of the leaves, allowing the plant to "breath" from the underside, she is spraying a white poinsettia pale yellow and adding a pinch of neon salmon glitter to the center of each flower. Then she dusts the plant all over with neon yellow glitter.
The result is breathtaking.
"If I don't like how the color turns out, I add more glitter," says Kelley, Homestead's annuals manager, who mixes colors to get the shades of green or purple that she wants. "But to be honest, no matter what I think, someone will like it and buy it."
The paint job adds between $6 and $8 to the price of the plants, depending on their size.
A marketing ploy by the industry to revive poinsettia sales, the painted plants have been around for several years. They represent only a small fraction of total poinsettia sales, however, because while Kelley works on a couple of carts full of plants, literally acres of red, white and pink poinsettias stretch out nearby in the Homestead Growers greenhouses in Davidsonville.
About 120,000 unrooted poinsettia cuttings arrived at the greenhouses in June this year from breeders in Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico and Costa Rica. They were given four weeks to root and then transplanted into 70,000 pots.
Under the careful management of head grower Oliver Storm, some of the cuttings will become poinsettia trees. Others will become hanging baskets. Some will have both red and white plants in the same pot. Others will grow to only six inches high. There are 50 different varieties, from the palest pink to burgundy red. From ivory to a yellow-white. Some of the petals – called bracts – are ruffled. Others hint at the shape of a rose.
Storm has arranged for the tens of thousands of plants to bloom at different times so that customers, such as the churches that order plants to be delivered on Christmas Eve, will have fresh ones no matter when they buy.
Storm opened the greenhouses last weekend for tours, and he asked the visitors to vote for their favorite among the 30 new varieties he is testing, including exotic shapes and colors like hot pink and burnt orange.
"No matter how they vote, they said the same thing. "I like that one the best, but now I am going to go buy my red one," Storm said, "because that is what Christmas is."
There have been attempts to use different colors and different petal shapes to expand the poinsettia season to other holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Valentine's Day or even Easter, says Storm. All were dismal failures.
"It didn't work," said Storm. "Because people would not accept poinsettias at any other time."
Only a fraction of the 70,000 poinsettias under roof at Homestead Growers will be sold through Homestead's garden center.
More than 400 churches have standing orders for the plants, as do government buildings in Washington, including the Smithsonian. Not the White House, however.
"We haven't delivered poinsettias there in two years," said Storm, who provides mums for the president's home and gardens. "We understand the first lady is not fond of them."
It is ironic that a tropical plant should be so powerfully linked to a winter holiday. While serving as ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett brought home the plant, which Aztecs first discovered blooming in the highlands during the short days of winter and used as a fever cure,.
Poinsett propagated the plant in his South Carolina hothouse and sent it to friends. The poinsettia was formally introduced to the public in 1829 at a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society flower show, the precursor to the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Known at first by its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (meaning "the most beautiful Euphorbia"), the plant by 1836 had become known by the name of the man who introduced it to this country.
But in Mexico, the poinsettia is still known for that long-ago miracle of the poor girl who was ashamed of her gift to the Christ child at Christmas Eve services: Flores de Noche Buena, or "Flowers of the Holy Night."