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Poinsettias: The Color of Christmas

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It’s a sunny Sunday, devoid of the lingering fog that has plagued the valley for the last few weeks, as I whip my Z4 off the main road and into the entrance of the Hollandale Nursery. It’s just a few days before Thanksgiving and I am here for my annual carload of poinsettias, or what I call a load of colorful Christmas cheer.  

Jerry Warmerdam, founder and longtime proprietor, greets me from his lawn chair throne with a welcoming smile and his thick Dutch accent. Smoke’s curling from his pipe as he waves it toward the greenhouses brimming with this season’s stock of flowers. But before I can indulge myself, his son, Al, pokes his head out of the back of a delivery truck, stabbing his finger in mock derision at my two-seater BMW. “You gotta be kidding me,” he laughs. “Your cars are getting smaller and smaller, and pretty soon you won’t be able to fit any plants in there at all!”

He’s right; this could be a problem, since I invariably load up as many plants as we can fit into the front seat, back seat and trunk. But we always joke and he always gives me a bad time, and that’s why I like coming here. His sister, my good friend, Sam, emerges from one of the greenhouses and we chat for a bit before I go off to procure my passel of poinsettias. The breadth and width of plants of every hue and flavor, from scarlet to rose, and candy cane to cream, is absolutely breathtaking. I may have to make two trips.

So what exactly does the poinsettia have to do with Christmas and why is it that these seasonal stunners show up only around the holidays? In North America, this plant may be synonymous with winter festivities, but is considered a tropical plant, native to Central America and southern Mexico. It is no wonder that we have adopted it as a bright and colorful symbol of Christmas, a contrast to an otherwise drab and dreary season.

Poinsettias haven’t really been around here all that long, not arriving in the United States until the 19th century. The plant is named for the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced America to the poinsettia in 1828 after discovering it in the wilds of southern Mexico. Dr. Poinsett became very interested in the extraordinary plants and sent some back to his plantation in South Carolina. He began growing them and sending them to friends and botanical gardens. Robert Buist, a plant lover from Pennsylvania, saw the flower at the very first Philadelphia Flower Show and became enamored with its ethereal beauty. He was probably the first person to have sold poinsettias under their botanical, or Latin, name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. 

There are many legends as to why the poinsettia came to be hailed as harbinger of the holidays. One interpretation is that the star-like petals are a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, the heavenly body that led the three magi, or wise men, to the place Jesus Christ was born. And there are many variations of the story of the little Mexican girl, Pepita, who had no money to buy gifts for the baby Jesus. Feeling very sad as she walked to the chapel to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, Pepita said a little prayer, which brought forth an angel who told her to pick some weeds by the roadside. Pepita gathered the plain stalks, walked into the chapel and placed her bouquet of weeds on the altar. Suddenly, the bouquet burst into bright red flowers and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day forth, the bright red flowers became known as the flores de noche buena, or flowers of the holy night.

However, there is a newer, more recent version of how the poinsettia became the courier of Christmas. Paul Ecke III, grandson and CEO of Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch, states, “The poinsettia became the Christmas flower, and my grandfather has always been identified as the guy who made it so.” The elder Ecke started out selling flowers in the winter, which, so far, no one else had done. He sold the cut poinsettia flowers along Hollywood’s famed Sunset Boulevard, where the business immediately caught on. Paul Sr. established a poinsettia farming empire in Southern California, which at one point controlled 90 percent of the market. Poinsettias went from near obscurity to a $140 million annual market in the U.S., based on a 2015 assay by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “My grandfather is the one who led the charge into the flower business,” Paul Ecke III claims. “That’s how we started, and we sold more every year and grew more acres every year.”

The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts or modified leaves. The real flowers are the bright yellow cyathia in the center of the bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting poinsettias, one should try to choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing. 

The lovely poinsettia can be the brightest thing in the house during the holidays, but, sadly, most people just throw them out at the end of the season. They are actually quite easy to grow indoors with very little care. Simply provide enough warmth and water, and your poinsettia will thrive like any other house plant. Trim it back and set it in a saucer after removing the outer foil. Place it near a sunny window where it will receive at least six to eight hours of diffused light per day for it to bloom the next season. I prefer to move mine outdoors after the last frost where they can soak up the natural light and conditions before bringing them back indoors before first frost. Although nothing like the showy blooms from the previous year, they do reward me with some modest color.

Back at the nursery, I am getting ready to close the trunk on my kaleidoscope of poinsettias when I see Al holding an unusual variegated variety that I must have overlooked. But he’s a master and just moves a few around until he makes enough room, carefully poking it in amongst the others. That’s why I love coming here. 

I’m hoping your holidays are filled to the brim with colorful Christmas cheer! Wishing you a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

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