More than any flower, one bloom signals holiday season in California: poinsettias.
But this tradition didn’t get its start until the 1920s. Back then, a San Diego County nurseryman named Paul Ecke took a Mexican native plant that was growing wild along the Southern California coastline and started experimenting. At his ranch in Encinitas, he developed more than 100 new varieties of poinsettias.
Just as important, he figured out how to make poinsettias bloom reliably in late November and early December – just in time for Christmas. He also mastered ways to keep them compact and thrive in pots. In the wild, poinsettias – which are woody perennials – grow up to 12 feet tall and bloom in spring.
Paul Ecke Ranch (www.ecke.com) still ranks as the world’s poinsettia leader, responsible for about 70 percent of the poinsettias sold in the United States and half of all sales worldwide.
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Why are poinsettias so popular?
“Tradition!” said Ron Wolford, a University of Illinois horticulturist and author of the online Poinsettia Pages. “Plus the fact that Christmas is associated with the color red. Even though poinsettias come in a variety of colors, red is still the most popular color choice.”
Apparently that choice is being made by women, who account for an estimated 80 percent of the market.
Wolford developed his popular Poinsettia Pages about 20 years ago because his Chicago office received so many queries each Christmas about the plant.
The most common question?
“No. 1 by far, people want to know how to get it to rebloom next year,” Wolford said. “It’s not easy. The plants need absolute darkness. It’s fun to do, maybe once. But it’s so much easier to go buy a new one.”
Key pointers on poinsettias
▪ The poinsettia, a tropical member of the Euphorbia family, is native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs called it cuetlaxochitl, or “star flower.” The red petals – actually bracts or modified leaves – were used for dye. The plant also was used medicinally.
▪ Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, is credited with introducing the plant to this country in 1828. He raised the plants in his South Carolina greenhouse and gave them to friends. National Poinsettia Day is celebrated Dec. 12, the anniversary of Poinsett’s death.
▪ The red or otherwise colored bracts frame the plant’s actual flowers, which appear as yellow clusters at the center of the bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.
▪ Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans or pets, although their white sap can cause skin irritation, and nausea if eaten.
▪ Poinsettias are not frost-tolerant. They will grow outdoors in temperate coastal climates, such as Southern California beach communities. Planted in the ground, they can reach 12 feet tall.
How to keep your poinsettia alive
You’ve brought home one of those irresistible potted poinsettias or received one as a gift. How do you keep it beautiful through the holidays?
Today’s poinsettias can last longer than ever, often for months. To help yours stay pretty, follow this advice from Ron Wolford, creator of the Poinsettia Pages:
▪ Place your poinsettia in indirect light after bringing it home. Poinsettias need six hours of light daily (fluorescent light will work).
▪ Keep your plant away from cold windows, warm or cold drafts from furnaces or air conditioners, and open doors and windows.
▪ Poinsettias do best at daytime temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees. Higher temperatures will shorten the plant’s life.
▪ Check the soil daily. Punch holes in the pot’s foil cover so water can drain into a saucer. Water the plant when the soil is dry. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess. Wilted plants will tend to drop bracts sooner.
▪ Don’t fertilize poinsettias while in bloom. If kept past the holiday season, apply a houseplant fertilizer once a month.
▪ New varieties of poinsettias last longer. It’s not uncommon for poinsettias to retain their bracts for several months.
For more tips, go to: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/index.cfm.
Want a rebloom next year?
Poinsettias need at least 14 hours of complete darkness each night for six to 10 weeks to trigger bloom. If you manage to keep your potted poinsettia alive until September or October, you can trick it into blooming in time for Christmas.
The idea is to make your poinsettia think it’s already December, when nights are longest. Every night starting in early fall, place a lightproof bag over the plant or put it in a closet. Depriving it of light at night will force the bloom in time for Christmas.
Otherwise, nature will run its course – and your Christmas poinsettia will bloom in spring.