A plant that looks as if its leaves were spray-painted is now America's favorite potted flowering plant and a symbol of the holiday season.
Poinsettias have come a long way from their origins in Mexico, where Joel Robert Poinsett first saw the brilliant red plants blooming near Taxco in December 1833. A Southern plantation owner and botanist and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he arranged for some of the exotic plants to be grown in his greenhouse in South Carolina.
Its scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima ("most beautiful euphorbia"), but poinsettia is the name by which it's best known.
Poinsettias naturally turn red and provide color at a time of year when most flowering plants are dormant. The color change occurs in the bracts, which are modified leaves. The true flowers are the small yellow berrylike growths--called cyathia--that appear in the center of the bracts.
Although originally red, poinsettias have been developed with white, pink, yellow, speckled or bicolor bracts. Red is still the best seller, according to the Poinsettia Growers Assn., based in Encinitas.
At the turn of the century, poinsettias were sold as cut flowers.
The leading poinsettia grower in the world, Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, which provides 90% of all poinsettia plants or cuttings, began as a cut-flower business in Hollywood in the early part of this century. The novelty of red plants in November and December grew, and by the 1920s, poinsettias were in demand as potted plants.
Continuing research and plant breeding have resulted in hardier, more vigorous plants with stronger stems, more colorful bracts and wider color range than those commercially available just 20 years ago.
"Although a red poinsettia is a red poinsettia to most people, there are actually a number of different varieties now sold," said Thom David of Paul Ecke Ranch.
Freedom, V-14 and Supjibi are the most abundant red varieties available to Orange County shoppers. Novelty colors are also increasing in popularity. Monet was introduced several years ago. It features cream bracts speckled with raspberry flecks.
"This is a transformational plant," David said. "As the plant matures, the speckles get more intense and the plant changes its appearance."
Other novelty colors include Jingle Bells, red bracts with white speckles, and Marble, featuring cream bracts with pink splashes.
The traditional 4- or 6-inch potted plant is still the most popular form, but an increasing number of discriminating buyers select poinsettias grown as trees, hanging baskets or centerpieces.
The dramatic trees are 3 to 4 feet tall and are crowned with large, rounded masses of colorful bracts. Expect to pay $55 for a 10-inch containerized tree, up to $200 for a 15-gallon container.
"We find that poinsettia trees are starting to get more popular," said Lloyd A. Shaver of Lloyd's Nursery in Costa Mesa. "An increasing number of our customers request them."
In their native Mexico, poinsettias frequently grow as small trees. Their growth can be contained by regular pruning, which encourages a bushier, rounded appearance.
"Around here, poinsettias grow like weeds and are easy to grow if you just stick them in the ground," Shaver said. "I've seen one growing in Santa Ana that's now 15 feet tall and colors up every December."
The plants are photoperiodic, meaning that they set buds and produce flowers as the fall nights lengthen. Plants grown in greenhouses are cultivated with precise light controls and fertilization. These same conditions can be simulated in the home or landscape with a few precautions.
Plants in the garden need rich, fast-draining soil and protection from strong winds or frost. Be sure to place them where street lights or indoor lights won't fall on them or the reblooming cycle will be affected.
One of the added benefits of poinsettia research is that the plants retain their colorful bracts long after the holiday season has ended. The plants can be enjoyed until March or April. When the bracts drop off, the plants can still be salvaged for future enjoyment, either as container plants or in the garden.
If you want to keep your plant in a container, cut it back to eight inches in early spring. By the end of May, new growth will appear. Water regularly, but be careful not to overwater. Let the soil dry between waterings. Fertilize every two to three weeks in spring, summer and fall with a complete, balanced fertilizer. In summer, prune to shape the plant for a bushy, compact appearance. Don't prune after Sept. 1.
You can also transplant in summer to the next larger size container. Use a soil mix with such organic material as leaf mold or peat moss.
To ensure winter color, place the plant where it will be in the dark 14 hours each night starting Oct. 1. You may need to put the plant in a dark room or place a box over it. Poinsettias also require six to eight hours of bright sunlight in October, November and early December, so be sure to remove the box each day.
Your efforts should be rewarded with the reappearance of a colorful poinsettia in time to again brighten the holidays.