Bright sunlight showcases the fiery red leaves thriving in the warm, humid air inside the greenhouse at KD Nursery in Somis.
Rows upon rows of white benches that once supported a tropical jungle of colorful poinsettias now stand mostly bare, cleaned out by the Christmas rush.
Its workers toiling long hours, KD Nursery has shipped 300,000 plants in the last six weeks, each headed for a home over the holidays.
"It's hard work, but I like to do it," says Assistant Manager Armando Ayala, taking the first break after weeks of nonstop work.
Timing is critical in growing poinsettias, he says, each one planted and nursed along according to a strict calendar. "If we want poinsettias for Thanksgiving, we plant them in July," Ayala said.
KD Nursery is one of the major poinsettia growers in western Ventura County, home of Poinsettia City, a title that the area has retained since 1926.
The hothouse crop is more than a Christmas decoration in this area. The plants brought $2.3 million in revenue in Ventura County last year, according to the county's agricultural commissioner.
The numbers are not yet in for 1995, but this fall had little rain or cloud cover to block the sunshine needed to coax the plants into a full display of colors, says Kosta Defterios, owner of KD Nursery.
Poinsettias were introduced in the United States in 1820 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U. S. ambassador to Mexico. While in Mexico, Poinsett saw the intense red blooms and brought a few specimens back to his home in Greenville, S. C.
It was named after the ambassador and has become one of the most popular potted plants in the United States.
The largest supplier of poinsettia cuttings, from which the plants are grown, is the 900-acre Paul Ecke Ranch in the San Diego County community of Encinitas. The ranch is known worldwide for breeding new varieties, Defterios says.
Besides the traditional red, KD Nursery carries several varieties culled from the Paul Ecke Ranch. Pointing at different ones, Ayala says: "yellow, peach, pink, marble, Monet, jingle bells."
"We get the cuttings and plant them in small pots. When we get them, they are green. By the end of October, they start showing some color," he said.
While most poinsettias are not snapped up until the holidays, the season begins much earlier for wholesalers and retailers.
"In January, we meet with our customers," Defterios said. "We look at the year's sales and start taking orders. We try to get everything booked by March."
About 90% of KD Nursery's poinsettias are grown for orders filled early in the year, Defterios says.
Defterios spent much of this week touring supermarket chains, discount outlets and other customers throughout the San Fernando Valley. He says he likes to survey the quality of his and other growers' crops.
"Every grower likes to look at other growers' product," Defterios said. "In the stores, I look at the quality, and I look at how they are being cared for by the customer. I also look at what is selling."
With the busy shipping season mostly behind them, both Defterios and Ayala are ready to relax during the holidays.
"It's a nightmare that is over with," Defterios said of the holiday rush.
Inside the half-empty greenhouse, a few workers navigate the narrow aisles carrying trays of potted plants. The music of a Spanish-language radio station fills the air.
About 30 packed boxes line a greenhouse wall waiting to be shipped. They are marked with bright red letters, "Rush. Live Plants. Keep from heat or cold. This side up."
"Poinsettias are a good crop to have," said Ayala, who also grows a variety of ornamental house plants. "If you had a bad year, the poinsettias will save your year. They are a sure sell."